GULFPORT -- They cried, they hugged, they lit candles to remember her by, and they pledged to keep her memory alive.
"We are all family here," said Dawn Dunaway, one of more than 200 mourners who attended a candlelight vigil and memorial service at dusk Friday in memory of slain Waffle House waitress Julie Brightwell. "We all love each other. She was very much loved and will be very much missed."
Dunaway, who has worked for Waffle House in Mississippi for 31 years, said she knew Brightwell, a woman she described as someone with the kind of upbeat personality that gave her an edge when it came to waiting on customers over the last eight years serving at Waffle House restaurants in Biloxi. "She has a personality that is very outstanding, outgoing."
When Dunaway learned Brightwell had been shot to death in the early hours of Nov. 27, she said, "it was the saddest day.'
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"She didn't deserve that," she said. " It crushed me."
Waffle House employees and corporate executive attended Friday's service on the beach across from the Waffle House where Brightwell lost her life after telling customer not to smoke. She spent some of her last moments asking others if they had enjoyed their Thanksgiving holiday or had found some good sales while holiday shopping.
Johnny Max Mount, 45, is being held on a charge of first-degree murder in her killing. Police said Mount, an ex-Biloxi firefighter, got angry when Brightwell told him he couldn't smoke in the restaurant.
Singer's No. 1 fan
Chelsea Carlton said she worked with Brightwell 10 hours every night up until Thanksgiving. Carlton is a singer on the side and Brightwell always encouraged her to pursue her singing career. During Friday's vigil, she sang, "In the Arms of an Angel" in memory of her friend.
"I know she affected each and every one of you," Carlton told the assembled mourners. "She was a my friend and sister and I loved her very much. I pray for her today and every day here on out."
She said Brightwell would always ask her to sing when they were working and the restaurant was packed. One night, she said, a man came in who was starting up a management company. Brightwell wanted her to sing for him, and Carlton did.
"That got me a gig at the (Biloxi) Shuckers stadium," she said. "I sang the national anthem. If I have had a No. 1 fan in this world, it would have been Ms. Julie. She loved my voice." Losing her, she said, has been "hard.
'Give it to God'
Friday's memorial included a few words from the Rev. Stephen Lanier of Gulfport Heights Baptist Church.
"When you try to make sense out of something you can't make sense out of, you have to give it to God," he said. "May God be with you."
Brightwell's boyfriend, Eugene Nash, asked friends to remember the "joyful person" she was, and another friend, Linda Kilpatrick told mourners to remember Brightwell wouldn't want them to live every day in sadness.
"She would want you to live your life," she said, "and live your life to the fullest."
Diane Hickman, Brightwell's aunt, drove in from Louisiana to spend time with her niece's friends. She thanked them for their support and remembered the young woman who'd spent her early years working as a dental hygienist.
Customers also attended the service, as did Waffle House corporate executives.
At the end of the memorial, eight lighted balloons were released representing the number of years Brightwell had served customers at Biloxi Waffle House restaurants.
A memorial, which contains flowers and promises not to ever forget a friend who died a senseless death, sits outside the restaurant where Brightwell died. Inside the door, a spray of flowers sits next to book people can sign in memory of her.
Pat Warner, vice president of Waffle House corporate in Atlanta, said he and the executives, including the president and chief executive officer, wanted to pay their respects to a valued employed who never failed to make customers feel welcome.
Henry Curtis was one of the those customers.
"She was a nice lady," he said. "She had no enemies."
Brightwell's funeral service will be Monday at Riemann Funeral Home on Beauvoir Road, with visitation at 4 p.m. and the service at 5 p.m. in the funeral home chapel.