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STRATHAM, N.H. — The Timberland headquarters, nestled in a woodsy industrial park set back from the main road, would seem an ideal workplace for someone who loved the outdoors.

That’s partly why Catherine Heppner, a 46-year-old executive who everyone called Cassie, chose to work there. She thrived outside — she skied and scuba dived and wake boarded — and she loved that her company was synonymous with adventure. When she saw someone wearing Timberland’s iconic boots, she would press the stranger with enthusiastic questions: Where did you buy them, and why, and what do you love about the brand?

Maybe the bucolic campus endeared itself to 20-year-old Robert Pavao, too. He’d only been camping twice — he could more often be found inside playing video games — but he had soaked it up, and he was planning another trip over Labor Day.

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On Sunday, Feb. 9, both Heppner and Pavao headed to the snow-covered offices. Heppner, who had been skiing with her husband and son, was flying to Dallas the next day, her family said, one of the many work trips she took as director of global marketing for Timberland Pro. On her day off, she went in to get ready for the trip.

Catherine "Cassie" Heppner and her son.
Catherine "Cassie" Heppner and her son.family photo

Pavao, a rookie security guard for the company Securitas, had recently moved to nearby Berwick, Maine, with his parents and was working his regular shift. There are no indications the two knew each other — and there remains little explanation for what happened next.

It was late afternoon and chilly, the sun sinking below the evergreens, when the call came in to law enforcement.

“Scene is not secure,” an official said over the Stratham Fire dispatch. “Reference to a patient that has been a victim of stabbing.”

For Heppner’s family — her 8-year-old son, her husband, her three siblings, her elderly father — the news was unthinkable. Pavao, police said, had stabbed her to death.

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Pavao’s friends, who had just visited him in Maine, were also in shock. A report from the Rockingham County Department of Corrections, where Pavao is being held without bail, said he did not have any history of addiction or mental illness and had no criminal record.

The police have not yet released an incident report, and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office said it could not comment because of the ongoing investigation. And so the exact details of what happened on that Sunday afternoon remain inscrutable.

“He’s the kind of kid who says sorry if you bump into him,” said Andre Estevam, 20, who has known Pavao since sixth grade. “I considered him, and still do, like a brother.”

***

After living in Burlington, Mass., his entire life, Pavao had recently moved with his family to Berwick. He had always been a shy kid who had difficulty making friends, but by high school he became part of a tight-knit group, which included Estevam and Michael, now 22, who asked the Globe to withhold his last name because he did not want his family to be associated with Pavao’s case.

Robert Pavao has been charged with second-degree murder and is being held without bail at the Rockingham County Department of Corrections.
Robert Pavao has been charged with second-degree murder and is being held without bail at the Rockingham County Department of Corrections.Stratham Police Department

The two friends said Pavao had been bullied in school, and could be slow to pick up on social cues, sometimes not understanding when he was the butt of a joke. Pavao was clearly grateful for the boys’ friendship.

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“There were some nights where we would hang out with him, and he would break down crying. He would ask me and Mike to hold him and he would just say, ‘You guys are the best friends I could ever ask for,’” Estevam said.

As a hobby, Pavao hand-painted action figurines, dotting blue eyes onto one and transforming another from pink to green. After the move to Maine, increasingly desolate, he spent hours with the figurines, his two friends said.

“He’s told me he would go the store — he wouldn’t really care about the figurines — he would more want to talk to people because he was feeling so lonely,” Michael said.

The family’s new neighbors, Roland and Joyce Fogg, said they sometimes saw Pavao sitting alone by the fire pit behind the house, listening to music. The Pavao family did not respond to requests for comment and did not answer the door when a reporter knocked. The New Hampshire public defender representing Pavao also did not respond to requests for comment.

Just two weeks before the stabbing, Michael and Estevam spent the weekend at Pavao’s house, watching the new Joker movie.

“We went out for a cigarette, and we laid down in the snow and looked at the stars. I saw the second shooting star in my life,” Estevam said. “It was like out of a movie.”

***

Spunky and outgoing, Cassie Heppner grew up in Katonah, N.Y., the second oldest of four siblings. She aimed to be a “world dominator,” her sister, Eleanor Hershey, said; she was president of her high school class and captain of the field hockey and lacrosse teams.

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At Timberland, the international boots and outerwear company based in New Hampshire, Heppner’s job was to market the brand to the trade professions, and she tackled it with anti-elitist devotion.

“She would go to stores and events and talk about how great it was to be carpenters, plumbers, and electricians,” said Cassie’s brother, Chris Heppner. She married a carpenter and she designed ad campaigns focused on workers rappelling off bridges or operating heavy machinery, wearing Timberlands. She would regale her siblings with stories about how she kept her team entertained, bringing her employees skiing or taking them out bowling, as she did the Friday night before she died.

Cassie Heppner was known for her committment to community service.
Cassie Heppner was known for her committment to community service. family photo

Heppner greeted people she loved with bear hugs and head locks, her sister said, and she wanted to teach her young son how to rock climb.

“There’s nothing shy about Cassie. Sometimes I’m just like, ‘all right, pump the brakes, sister,’” Hershey joked.

Heppner also threw herself into community service, visiting Puerto Rico to rebuild homes after Hurricane Maria, serving on the national council for Big City Mountaineers, a nonprofit organization that gives teens the chance to experience the outdoors, and volunteering with Girls at Work, an organization that teaches girls how to build.

Even though she was a high-ranking executive, she wasn’t showy about her position, said her sister-in-law, Jennifer Pulsone.

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Cassie Heppner, director of global marketing for Timberland Pro, was killed when she went into the office on her day off to prepare for a work-related trip.
Cassie Heppner, director of global marketing for Timberland Pro, was killed when she went into the office on her day off to prepare for a work-related trip. Family photo

“Cassie was all about the worker. Her husband is a worker,” Pulsone said. “She came from a working-class background. And she herself worked her way up.”

***

After graduating from Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica in 2018, Robert Pavao worked a series of low-wage jobs, including at the Shell gas station around the corner from his house. He had majored in auto body at the massive vocational high school.

“He was a bit awkward, but I never really had any issues with him,” said Kevin, the manager of the Shell gas station where Pavao worked, who declined to give his last name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In July 2019, the Pavao family sold the modest two-story house where they had lived for 28 years, deed records show, and moved to Berwick. His friends knew he was desperately lonely, but recently he seemed to be on an upward trajectory: He had just bought a used Lincoln car, and he had started working full time as a security guard. Pavao often called Michael when he was bored on the job, his friend said.

“He would talk about anime, games,” Michael said. He never mentioned Heppner or his co-workers, Michael said.

Then, on Feb. 9, Pavao was taken into custody and charged with second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

Weeks later and without official answers, those who were touched by the crime are still trying to wrap their heads around what happened — and why.

“There’s all of these people broken up,” said Michael. “They’re kind of shocked,” he added, “that this is reality.”


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.