Jennifer Pizano stayed awake until 1 a.m. Monday, expecting her partner for the past 11 years to walk through the door after a month-long stint away from home.
She went to bed and woke up again at 4 a.m., hoping to find him settling back into the home they shared in West Monroe, La.
Then, the “freaking out” started. Pizano phoned her husband’s supervisors at the construction company where he worked for nearly a decade, asking them to send someone to check the Rock Hill hotel room where he slept after long hours of working at a mill in Catawba.
“I was scared out of my mind,” she said. “They would’ve never known he was missing if I hadn’t called them.”
By noon Monday, police found Darius Heckford, 46, dead in a room at the Ramada Inn on North Cherry Road. The owner of RAB, Inc., which sent a crew to perform contracted work on Resolute Forest Products during a scheduled maintenance outage, called Pizano and told her the news.
“I really haven’t been able to speak to anyone,” Pizano said. “I really haven’t been answering my phone. I’m completely broken up about this thing.”
Heckford would have turned 47 on Wednesday.
York County Coroner Sabrina Gast continues her investigation into Heckford’s death, which she called “suspicious” after authorities uncovered evidence that raised more questions than answers.
Autopsy results on Tuesday returned inconclusive, Gast said. While officials have remained quiet on what was found in the hotel room, Gast has said that Heckford did not suffer from any significant superficial wounds that would indicate a gunshot or stabbing.
Gast has not ruled out foul play, and said her office is awaiting toxicology test results. She does not believe carbon monoxide poisoning is a factor because Heckford did not display some of the physical indicators – such as “bright, red skin” – associated with that type of death.
Pizano said police told her on Thursday that they consider Heckford’s death an accident, but they haven’t disclosed to family members how he died. Police would not confirm whether they have ruled the death an accident, only saying they are still treating it as a normal death investigation.
Gast said it’s possible Heckford’s death was an accident, but she had not made an official ruling by Thursday evening.
“Knowing that nobody hurt him and he died peacefully, it’s a huge relief,” Pizano said. “He left a huge hole in everybody’s heart. Anybody that knew him, there’s a piece missing now. All his friends and family – we’re all tore up about this.”
Heckford is survived by four brothers, a sister, his mother and two sons, Dalton Heckford, 18, and 13-year-old Raymond Dennis. He also leaves behind Pizano, who he met through mutual friends two years before they “actually started talking.”
“We never fought,” she said. “For the past 11 years, we’ve been inseparable.”
They would have celebrated their anniversary on July 9. Though not legally married, they were husband and wife in every way that mattered, Pizano said.
“That’s how everybody knew us,” she said.
Pizano last spoke with Heckford on Saturday night when he returned to the hotel after dinner. He was anxious to return home, Pizano said.
“I missed him and he missed his family and he was just so happy to be coming home the next day,” she said.
Pizano has garnered support from Heckford’s family, his mother and sister especially. She said she’s gotten to the point “that I really need to pull myself together because that’s what he would’ve wanted me to do.”
On Wednesday, Heckford’s brother, Drew Heckford, remembered him as a joker who gave everyone in his family nicknames. His construction manager, Deryl Cole, called him likable and charismatic. Pizano echoed those sentiments on Thursday.
“There was not a single person in the world that did not immediately fall in love with Darius,” she said. “He was the easiest person to like; he was funny ... kind to everybody. He just kind of would draw you in, always smiling, always charismatic.”
He enjoyed playing pool, and played “every chance he got.”
“He really didn’t hide anything from anybody,” she said. “People that knew him, they knew him. He didn’t hide who he was to anybody.”