By REID TUCKER
A Santa Rosa Beach man was charged last Friday morning with the murder of Courtney Wilkes, 15, whose body was found within a half-mile of the condominium where she and her parents had been vacationing.
Less than five hours elapsed between the initial report by Wilkes’ parents that she was missing, the discovery of her body and the arrest of Steven Anthony Cozzie, 21, by deputies of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO).
Sheriff Mike Adkinson said he was extremely confident the WCSO had the person responsible for the Lyons, Ga., teen’s death in custody. He said considerable physical evidence and witness testimony pointed to Cozzie as the crime’s perpetrator. Adkinson said Wilkes’ death came as the result of a “purely predatory attack.”
Cozzie is currently being held in the Walton County Detention Facility on an open count of murder with additional charges reportedly forthcoming.
“We believe that Cozzie is a person that, without any other regard for the life or dignity of this child, maliciously and willfully took her life with an act of violence,” Adkinson said. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the family of this child and with all that we can we are going to support them through this time.”
A WCSO media release reported that Wilkes’ mother made contact with the WCSO at 4:06 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, to say that her daughter had not returned to Beachcrest Condominiums (where the family was staying), located on CR-30A, since going on “a walk with an acquaintance” at around 2 p.m. The victim’s father later identified Cozzie as the last person seen with his daughter, according to Cozzie’s arrest report. Wilkes’ body was found at 6:30 p.m. in a wooded area north of 107 Pine Grove Circle, the arrest report concluded.
Though Adkinson declined to give specific details regarding the slaying, choosing instead to say Wilkes died after an “extremely violent encounter,” Cozzie’s arrest report indicated that Wilkes was killed by blunt force from an unknown weapon. Furthermore, the report said a friend of Cozzie’s told investigators that Cozzie had shown him the deceased, saying she had been killed by hitting her in the head with a stick. Wilkes’ body was transported to the Medical Examiner’s Office, where an autopsy was conducted Friday, though no further details regarding the cause of death have been released at this time.
Adkinson said Cozzie made no effort to flee or to resist arrest, nor did he make a statement of any kind to law enforcement officers. Adkinson also said that Cozzie displayed no apparent burden of remorse or guilt.
“If he has a soul it’s absent,” Adkinson said. “You don’t do what this man did to a child and tell me that you have a soul.”
Adkinson said Cozzie, who is unemployed and technically homeless, had been kicked out of his mother’s home about two weeks ago. He had then been camping out in the area where Wilkes’ body was found for a period of a few weeks. Cozzie has one prior arrest for trespassing in 2009 and Adkinson would not say whether the suspect was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of Wilkes’ slaying.
There is no indication of anything beyond a “casual relationship” between Cozzie and Wilkes, Adkinson said, and to infer that her parents had been in any way negligent is simply wrong.
“The parents kept very close ties on this child,” Adkinson said. “She was not unsupervised. They’ll struggle with this the rest of their lives, I know.
“I saw nothing that these parents did that was anything other than being protective and caring in the way they handled this. Given the circumstances we saw there, I think they did everything they could do to protect their child.”
The death of Wilkes, who would have turned 16 on July 9, marks the third homicide in south Walton County since last December, as a woman was strangled in Miramar Beach that month and a man was shot to death in Santa Rosa Beach this March. Nevertheless, Adkinson said south Walton remains “an extremely safe community.”
Adkinson said, “This act of violence is an aberration to what is normal for here. This is a situation where you have one individual who obviously has evil in his heart.”
Wilkes’ parents and her two younger siblings were still in Walton County on Friday afternoon, but Adkinson said they were in the process of making plans to return home to Georgia once her remains are released.
Adkinson said the WCSO’s involvement in the ongoing investigation will shift to putting together the remainder of the evidence. He said the goal is make sure all the facts are accurate so that, as additional charges are added, the state attorney’s office will have the best possible case to work with, thereby “ensuring a successful prosecution.”
Adkinson concluded the press conference with somber words while praising the professionalism he said allowed Walton County deputies to quickly apprehend the suspect.
“As a career law enforcement officer, there’s very little satisfaction in making this arrest because there’s nothing I can do to bring this child back to her parents,” Adkinson said. “Within two hours of us being aware of even a missing child report, we had him in custody. I am grateful for that little small bit of solace…We put all available resources toward apprehending the suspect.”.