Toombs parents break silence after daughter's killer sentenced - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Toombs parents break silence after daughter's killer sentenced

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LYONS, GA (WTOC) -

The parents of Courtney Wilkes saw two choices after their teeanage daughter's murder: crawl in a hole and die emotionally or carry on.

"Either way, we don't get our daughter back. So we had to carry on," said Toni Wilkes, Courtney's mom.

"It's a choice, a deliberate conscious decision," added her dad, Cordy.

The couple waited until the daughter's accused killer was convicted and sentenced to speak publicly about the whole ordeal and speak exclusively to WTOC. A Florida jury found Stephen Cozzie guilty of murder back in June.

After months of evaluation, the judge in the case upheld the jury's recommendation of a death penalty. Cozzie now sits on death row while an automatic appeal begins.

The Wilkes' horror began in June 2011 with a family vacation to Florida. Cozzie befriended Courtney and her family.

On the next to last day there, Courtney left her family with Cozzie midday for a walk on the beach. Hours later, the parents began to look for her.

"I remember getting a sick feeling as we looked for her and didn't find her. I kept asking Cordy 'Should we worry?' and he would say 'Don't worry yet'," she recalled. "And then there was a point when he said 'Now we worry'. And after that it was like a really bad dream."

The search began and lawmen found Courtney's body and Cozzie within hours. That grizzly discovery in a wooded area near the beach actually gave the Wilkes their first piece of comfort.

"We told each other that we at least had her and could bring our baby home," Toni noted. "There are so many parents around the world who lose a child and never find her and never get that closure."

From there, the outpouring of love by their community began. More than a thousand people attended Courtney's funeral.

Florida detectives who worked the case joined Courtney's high school soccer teammates and much of Toombs County in mourning. Many tied white ribbons to their cars, their mailboxes and other places to pay tribute.Her soccer team retired her jersey.

"It didn't end after the funeral. There are people who say they won't take down the ribbons even now. There's a lady who sends us a card every week to tell us she's praying for us," Toni stated.

The couple said they could not have carried on in their own strength. They credit their faith for bringing them through, including the toughest challenge of all, forgiving Cozzie.

She draws a parallel to a Christian song called "Forgiveness". It was written about a woman who found the strength to forgive the young drunk driver who killed her daughter.

"I can remember the point where I was driving down the road and it hit me to the point I pulled over and said 'God, I'm going to have to forgive him aren't I?' and it was like He was talking in the car to say 'Yep, you are' and I had to start there."

Cordy said the long delay in getting the case to trial actually gave them time to begin the healing process. That included accepting a tearful gesture of apology from Cozzie's mother at the sentencing hearing.

Toni doesn't think she or Cordy could have handled that any earlier.

The Wilkes maintain Courtney's memory. She is burried on a hill beside their home. Her tombstone carries the scripture reference Joshu 1:9 with instructions "Look it up" underneath. The verse reads "Remember I commanded you to be strong and brave. Don't be afraid, because the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

Toni and Cordy said they take strength from the faithful life Courtney lived in her brief 15 years. 

"This was the hand we were dealt, but we had a great kid for 15 years and there are plenty who can't say that," Toni concluded.

Courtney is remembered across her community. The library at her grade school, Vidalia Heritage Academy, is named for her.

Numerous schools planted trees in her honor. The Vidalia Onion Growers Association established a college scholarship in her honor for students pursuing her two loves, veternary medicine and agriculture.

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