By Lila Bromberg and Naomi Grant
James DeLeonardis and one of his best childhood friends, Randy Gassaway, used to video chat for hours on end in what they called "virtual sleepovers." They lived far away from each other at the time, and during the summer, they would stay up all night talking, laughing and playing video games. At one point, a call went on for almost three days, only ending because DeLeonardis had to get his hair cut, Gassaway said.
DeLeonardis always seemed to be in a good mood. He was "the sunshine on a rainy day," said Skylar Mercer-Graybill, one of his friends and coworkers, the kind of person whose presence could bring a smile to people's faces and have them laughing within seconds, even at their lowest points.
Gassaway, a freshman at Nassau Community College, said whenever he was upset about his grades, DeLeonardis would give him a look and the two would be laughing within seconds.
DeLeonardis, a University of Maryland sophomore and member of the Sigma Nu fraternity, died on Nov. 26. He was 19.
University Police spokeswoman Sgt. Rosanne Hoaas said the department is not conducting a death investigation, as DeLeonardis did not die on or near the campus. Baltimore County Police did not respond to a request for comment.
He is survived by mother Diane Broadwater, father David DeLeonardis, sister Danielle DeLeonardis, stepmother Christy DeLeonardis and stepfather David Broadwater, as well as five stepsiblings and several extended family members. The fraternity held a vigil for DeLeonardis on Wednesday, and his funeral service was held on Saturday.
DeLeonardis was born on Long Island, New York, according to an online obituary. He grew up in Reisterstown, Maryland, and briefly moved to South Carolina around the start of high school before moving back to Maryland to attend Franklin High School in Reisterstown, according to his close friends. He lived in Hampstead at the time of his death, according to an online obituary.
DeLeonardis' stepfather, David Broadwater, said his stepson was an outgoing person without prejudice, and "always brightened up the room." Broadwater said a girl reached out to him following DeLeonardis' death to share how big of an impact he had.
She told Broadwater most of her friends stopped caring about her when she had a child while attending Franklin High School, but DeLeonardis was different. He would call and text her to see how she was doing, even until his death, Broadwater said.
Even when they first met as kids, Gassaway remembers DeLeonardis helping him learn to bowl after joining a bowling league. Gassaway was in fourth grade at the time, while DeLeonardis was in fifth.
"I didn't know what I was doing and kept getting gutter balls, and he would help me … and crack jokes," Gassaway said.
After moving to South Carolina, DeLeonardis attended Stratford High School, where he met Jonathon Benton, who said the two became best friends through marching band. Benton wrote in a Facebook message that DeLeonardis "never did anyone wrong and wanted people to always be positive."
Benton said DeLeonardis was going to try to visit him around Christmas if he could.
DeLeonardis and his family later moved to Reisterstown, where he joined Franklin High School's wrestling team with Gassaway, who said the two became "closer than brothers."
"We just had everything in common, but wrestling, that just made us even more close. He was great on the mat and off the mat, [and] he would always support us," Gassaway said. "I have my wrestling videos, and you can hear him in the background yelling at me, telling to me get my stuff together."
Aside from wrestling, DeLeonardis also enjoyed listening to music, especially hip-hop and rap. Cole Walker met DeLeonardis freshman year of high school through wrestling, recalling that DeLeonardis could always be seen with his headphones on.
"He just had a lot of heart and he never gave up on anything," Walker said.
Broadwater said his family has since heard stories of DeLeonardis standing up for friends being bullied throughout middle and high school.
"We knew we had a fine young man here, but we didn't know he was going to bat for these less fortunate people, so that really meant a lot to us to hear all these stories that we knew nothing about," he said.
Gassaway said DeLeonardis watched out for all of his friends and supported him in everything he did, from wrestling to rapping.
"He would … tell me to keep writing, and he would listen to [my songs] more than anybody else. Anything I wanted to do, he was always there for me," Gassaway said. "He was just the best person to be around. It's just so sad that he's gone."
In a Facebook message, DeLeonardis' friend, Brady Schindler, called him a "selfless individual" who would put others ahead of himself any chance he got.
DeLeonardis' hometown friend Ricki Stevens called him a jokester who loved to have people laughing.
"He had one of the biggest hearts I've ever seen in my entire life," Stevens said. "He was just such a great person, and he would have done anything for anybody."