BILOXI -- "Why?" Diane Hickman asks. "Why did he have to take her from us?"
Hickman's voice breaks, then she weeps as she talks about her beloved niece Julie Brightwell, a longtime Waffle House waitress shot to death over a cigarette.
"She was just doing her job. Who did this man think he was? He has taken her from my family, from all of us."
Hickman hasn't slept since she learned of her niece's killing in the early hours after Thanksgiving.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Sun Herald
"I feel like my head is spinning all the time," she said from her home in Louisiana. "I dream about her all night. I just talk to her. I think about it. I don't want to, but I can't stop. She was just so good. She shouldn't have had to go this way. It's so unfair."
Police arrested Johnny Max Mount, 45, a former Biloxi firefighter, on a charge of first-degree murder in the killing. Records say Mount got angry when Brightwell, 52, told him he couldn't smoke in the restaurant in the 2400 block of U.S. 90.
Mount was sitting at the counter. He reached into the waist of his pants, pulled out a 9 mm handgun and shot Brightwell in the head, records say. He then walked outside, placed the handgun and a holster on the hood of a pickup truck and walked back inside to use the restroom. Police arrested Mount as he was leaving the restaurant a second time.
Hickman said she can't get the image out of her head of the terror Brightwell must have felt in her final minutes of life.
"It's horrible," she said. "It's like losing my daughter. I was more than an aunt to her. She lived off and on with me over 30 years."
Hickman stepped in after Brightwell's parents died years ago. She said Brightwell stayed with her and her husband at times over the years. She said her niece moved to South Mississippi after she and friends visited during a vacation.
"She loved it," Hickman said. "She wanted to live there and that's what she did."
Brightwell had spent her earlier years in Nevada and California working as a dental hygienist, Hickman said. She left all that behind after she came to Biloxi nine years ago.
For eight years, she worked at one of the string of Waffle House restaurants along Biloxi's beachfront highway. She started working in July 2014 at the Waffle House where she was killed, when it was rebuilt after 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
Pat Warner, vice president of Waffle House's corporate office in Atlanta, said she had been hand-picked to open that restaurant because she did such a good job.
Waffle House employees who have needed it have gotten time off to grieve, as well as counseling and any other support they need.
Hickman said she wants others to know how greatly she and her family appreciate the outpouring of support since her niece's death. She said Brightwell's friends helped organize a candlelight vigil in her memory Friday on the beach across from the Waffle House where she was killed, in the 2400 block of U.S. 90. She said Brightwell's closest friend has been talking with her about the plans.
The vigil, at which one of her co-workers will sing and a pastor will speak, is set to begin about dusk.
Warner said he will be at the vigil, as will Walt Ehmer, the company's president and chief executive officer, and Rob Abney, the executive vice president.
Hickman said she hopes to make it to the vigil but her grief has kept her from doing a lot. She said she'll come soon to make arrangements for the funeral, which will be early next week.
Brightwell is survived by Hickman and her husband, two children and a host of other relatives.
Mount remains jailed in Harrison County on a $2 million bond.
Herman Cox, Harrison County's prosecuting attorney, said Mount has a Dec. 16 preliminary hearing before Justice Court Judge Albert Fountain.
During his initial court appearance, Mount asked the judge if his charge carried a death penalty. He is being held in the medical block for inmates at the jail.
In 2002, Mount was hit by a car as he stood in the middle of U.S. 49 in Gulfport late one night. A family friend said Mount lost a limb and suffered a traumatic brain injury and has never been the same since.