Candace Pickens had fallen in love with being a mother to her little boy, Zachaeus.
Her Facebook page is full of photos documenting the bond between mother and child as it strengthened over birthdays, holidays and visits with their extended, close-knit family.
“When she found out she was pregnant, she was scared at first,” the 23-year-old’s aunt, Irene Jenny Pickens, told The Washington Post. “But once she had that baby, it was so natural for her.
“She loved being a mother. And no matter what she was going through, I think he was the one thing that kept her going.”
One of the things Candace Pickens was going through in recent months, relatives said, was a volatile and abusive relationship — one she managed to keep hidden from some of the people who knew her best in and around Asheville, N.C., where she lived.
Her boyfriend, Nathaniel Elijah Dixon, had a violent history that included attempted robbery and allegations of domestic violence against another woman with whom he had a child, according to the Citizen-Times. In addition to Dixon’s extensive criminal history, police think he has possible ties to a Los Angeles street gang.
When Pickens recently discovered that she was pregnant with Dixon’s child, abortion was not an option, she told friends and family members.
She would have a second child, she insisted.
Now, relatives think it was that insistence that may have led to her death.
Her body was found early on the morning of May 12 by a jogger in a park in Asheville. She had been shot in the head at point-blank range, police said — executed.
Beside her, investigators said, was Zachaeus, badly injured but clinging to life.
Just one day after his birthday, the 3-year-old had witnessed his mother being shot in the face before he endured the same fate and was left for dead.
Pickens was declared dead at the scene. Her son was taken to a hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery; he is in stable but critical condition, police said.
Mekia Waters, the child’s grandmother, told The Post that Zachaeus was shot in the head and lost his left eye; but she forcefully denied local reports that his chance of survival is just 50 percent.
“My grandson is in stable condition and doing great and he has the doctors surprised,” Waters said Wednesday. “He’s moving his arms and legs and he’s doing more than what people expected.”
“He’s talking, he asked for juice and he said ‘daddy,'” she added. “He even made his own song up about juice.”
Dixon, who also lives in Asheville, fled to Columbus, Ohio, where he was arrested last week, authorities said. WLOS reported that Columbus police rescued a 21-year-old female hostage when Dixon was taken into custody.
The 24-year-old is awaiting extradition back to North Carolina, where he has been charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury, authorities said.
To Pickens’s friends and relatives, the motive was clear.
“He found out she was pregnant and he wanted her to abort the baby,” Irene Jenny Pickens told The Post. “She would never do that. It wasn’t an option for her, and that’s what sparked the violence.”
She added: “You could tell things were going on between them based on what she was posting on Facebook — but I don’t think anyone expected anything like this.”
Christina Hallingse, a spokeswoman for the Asheville Police Department, told The Post that authorities can’t confirm whether Pickens’s reported refusal to undergo an abortion was a motive in her killing, citing the ongoing investigation.
“The Asheville Police Department does not provide comment on an offender’s motive because that information is sensitive to the case itself,” Hallingse said. “Our responsibility at this point in the investigation is to present the best case possible to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution of the suspected offender.”
But the theory that Dixon decided to kill his girlfriend because she wouldn’t have an abortion was echoed on a GoFundMe page set up by one of her close friends.
“Candace was an amazing mother, friend and person,” Vanessa Peterson wrote. “She was always smiling and made the best out of life. She had recently found out she was pregnant and was murdered because she refused an abortion.
“So many loved ones have lost such an amazing person and more importantly an innocent child has not only witnessed his mother’s murder the day after his third birthday.”
A medical examiner confirmed that Pickens was pregnant at the time of her death, police said. The examiner told WLOS that he didn’t know how far along she was in her pregnancy.
Given the medical examiner’s finding, police also charged Dixon with first-degree murder of an unborn child.
Victoria Jayne, an assistant capital defender in Buncombe County, N.C., told The Post that Dixon has not yet been assigned an attorney.
On Facebook, hours before his capture in Columbus, Dixon shared three posts — including two private videos — about Pickens.
Using hashtags including #Ripbabymamaloveu and #candaceuwillbemissed, Dixon’s Facebook page portrays a grieving man shocked by his girlfriend’s sudden death.
“Candace pickens was pregnant with my child…this morning i lost my child too,” he wrote.
Many of his Facebook friends voiced support — although some pointed out that Dixon has been accused of killing the woman and unborn child he claimed to love, and nearly killing her firstborn son, as well.
The horrific double shooting shocked local residents.
“Not only take this young mother’s life, cut down in her prime, cannot raise her son now, but then you turn around and shoot the child in the head,” Keith Ogden, senior pastor of Hill Street Baptist Church, told WLOS. “That’s evil.”
Ogden held a memorial for Pickens at his church Saturday. Hours later, mourners gathered for a vigil at the park where police say Pickens was executed.
“It is time for us to come together to grieve the loss of a special, young mother,” vigil organizers said in a statement. “To support the mothers of our community, especially the single mothers. To stand together in defiance of violence.”
During the ceremony, WLOS reported, Pickens’s father “addressed the crowd, saying he doesn’t have bitterness in his heart, but forgiveness.”
— Justin Hinton (@JustinWLOS) May 15, 2016
— Justin Hinton (@JustinWLOS) May 15, 2016
— Justin Hinton (@JustinWLOS) May 14, 2016
Pickens was killed just as her life appeared to be stabilizing, relatives said.
She was working at a restaurant and studying at a community college. Her dream, they said, was to become a nurse.
She was outgoing, affectionate and quick to laugh, with a maternal streak that she developed taking care of her younger brothers when she was growing up. She loved country music — specifically, Tim McGraw — as well fashion, church and spending time with her son.
Last summer, her aunt remembered, Pickens was thrilled to take Zachaeus to the beach for the first time.
“She was the sweetest, loving girl,” Irene Jenny Pickens told The Post.
Relatives said they’ve been shocked in recent days by the number of friends Candace Pickens had — a broad, diverse group that was unrestricted by age or race.
“She could talk to a homeless man on the street the same way she would talk to the richest man in the world,” one of her cousins, Torre White, told The Post. “Sometimes, what hurts me the most, is that her ability to forgive and to love ultimately is the reason we’re here now. But at the same time, that’s just her. She could get mad, but she was always going to forgive you.”
Pickens’s aunt agreed, noting that her niece’s kind, forgiving nature made her more vulnerable to an allegedly abusive partner.
“Once they’ve got that hold on you — if you have that nurturing mentality — you say, ‘Maybe, he can treat me right this time,’ ” she said.
“But,” the aunt added, “there’s always that next time, and sometimes it’s too late.”
Lindsey Bever contributed to this report.