Cecillia Ray never will forget her sixth birthday party and being told she couldn't open her presents until her grandmother showed up.
But her memory is very hazy when it comes to the days after, as her family dealt with the news that Cassandra Ray missed her granddaughter's celebration because she was bludgeoned to death inside her Kennewick apartment.
It remains one of the Tri-Cities' unsolved homicides, but for Cecillia it is personal, as she tries to remember the sound of her grandmother's voice or what she looked like while accepting the fact her family likely will never have closure.
The 2001 tragedy, along with other experiences from her childhood, fueled Ray's desire to pursue a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
The 18-year-old graduated Friday night from Columbia Basin College with an associate degree in arts and sciences. She had been attending the Pasco community college since the fall of 2011 through Running Start, a program that allows high school students to pursue associate degrees along with their high school diplomas.
Ray also was her class salutatorian at Columbia High School in Burbank. She did not attend the May 31 graduation ceremonies, in part because she said she was bullied throughout her school years and feels a greater sense of accomplishment with her college degree.
Her parents are Latisha Wilcox of Richland and Cliff Ray of Wallula.
Cecillia enjoys drawing, writing stories and knitting, and acknowledges that, "if all this hadn't happened, I honestly would go into something that's more creative."
Instead, she's hoping her book smarts, stubbornness, ability to read people and interest in seeing people supported through the judicial system will lead to a career in detective work.
"My friends are very supportive of it because they can totally see me doing it and enjoying it," the Wallula woman told the Herald.
There are some extended family members who have questioned her decision, she said.
"When I say detective, people don't really understand because they think what they do on TV, it must be always like that versus sitting down and making a bunch of phone calls, a bunch of follow-ups, or driving around versus lots of shoot-outs," Ray said. "I really think my family doesn't understand what (a detective) does."
Ray said she entered the Running Start program because her high school classes weren't challenging enough. She was a full-time college student for the past two years, taking basic core classes so she could transfer to Central.
Her 16-year-old sister, Essance, will attend Running Start in the fall.
Ray is excited about moving to Ellensburg, but is worried because she's required to live in a campus dorm for one year and isn't comfortable being in a small space with someone she doesn't know or trust.
The university appealed to Ray because of its criminal justice program and the fact she has a couple of friends there from CBC. She has financial aid and a couple of scholarships, and anticipates receiving her bachelor's degree in two to three years.
Ray is the oldest of 10 -- five girls and five boys -- from a blended family.
She said her parents had divorced and were in a custody battle when her grandmother was killed.
Cassandra Ray, 51, was found dead Feb. 10, 2001, on the bathroom floor of her West Fifth Avenue apartment. She had been dead for several days. An autopsy showed she died from several blows to her head.
No arrests ever were made in connection with the homicide.
When Cassandra Ray didn't show up to her granddaughter's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's her son knew something was wrong and went by Ray's home, where the police eventually had to break through the front door.
Cecillia Ray remembers her dad telling her and her younger sister what happened and them crying together on the couch. She said her birthday hasn't been all that special since then because there's a shadow over the day.
"It's really hard to celebrate it without going off in your head. You'll think of it and that's so sad," she said. "And it's really painful because even when I wear her things I can't remember her very well, only that she was a cat lover."
Ray said her grandmother used to supervise the two girls during her dad's visitations.
Her grandmother, who had earlier worked as a nurse, loved to travel and meet unique people. Ray said she has a number of things that used to belong to her, including a turquoise and silver pendant, crystal earrings, a garnet ring and a Japanese kimono.
Ray knows that through the years Kennewick detectives have looked at certain people as potential suspects in her grandmother's slaying, but has accepted that she may never see justice in the case.
"I am able to say that even if it's a horrible crime, still some things just don't get solved," she said. "Yeah, bad things happen but no, you shouldn't have to depend on someone else getting something done in order to move on. Putting all your faith and hope and happiness into one person to get something done doesn't necessarily make a good idea."
As of now, Ray has no interest in investigating the death herself because she wouldn't have an unbiased opinion, especially if she knew the suspect. She says she'd rather focus on her higher education and move forward with her life.