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Lauren Sage Reinle, Florida Freedom Newspapers

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SEAGROVE BEACH — For some Walton County sheriff’s deputies, the day 15-year-old Courtney Wilkes was killed was a day like no other they have experienced.

“Every day you have missing kids on the beach,” said Deputy Nick McMillian, who was patrolling the beach that day Wilkes disappeared. “You just usually find them within the hour.”

On June 16, while vacationing with her family from Lyons, Ga., Wilkes went for a walk on the beach and never returned. Less than five hours after her parents last saw her, deputies found her body in some woods less than half a mile away.

On Saturday morning, the day Wilkes would have turned 16, about 30 law officers and residents gathered on the beach near where Wilkes was last seen by her parents to remember her disappearance and pay their respects to a life cut short.

“We feel like we knew her,” said Julie Hurst, director of the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, which organized the ceremony.

The Sheriff’s Office asked Hurst’s organization to set up the ceremony to help law enforcement officers deal with grief from a situation they may have never faced before in a county that has relatively few violent deaths.

“The death of a child is so tragic,” Hurst said. “It’s something we can’t deal with alone. We have to do it collectively.”

During the ceremony, Baptist minister Clint Akins spoke about Wilkes’ strong faith in God.

He read a message from a friend in Lyons about Wilkes’ 16th birthday: “We can only imagine the party you are having with Jesus. Who needs a car? You now have your wings.”

Visitors released pink balloons into the breeze as lightening struck sporadically in the distance. After the ceremony they tossed white carnations into the Gulf of Mexico.

McMillian helped search for Wilkes the day she disappeared. When her body was discovered, she had been strangled and sexually assaulted.

“It was a result you never thought could have happened down here,” McMillian said. “We never expected to have that ending.”

McMillan took 21-year-old suspect Steven Cozzie, into custody. Cozzie, of Seagrove Beach, has since been indicted for Wilkes’ murder and sexual assault.

McMillian said the tragedy has changed him. Now, every time a child is reported lost on the beach he worries that something terrible might have happened.

 “The hardest thing was you’re there with the family the whole time and then having to give them the news at the end, having to tell them that their daughter is not coming back,” McMillian said.

Walton County Beach Patrol Deputy Jeff McIntosh said it was the loss of innocence that wore heavily on his heart.

“She’s never going to get a chance to grow up,” he said with tears welling in his eyes.

McIntosh has a 3-year-old daughter.

“It tears me up to think that something like that could happen to her,” he said. “With our job you try not to bring home your work, but with something this tragic you just go home and hug your kids.”