Family proud of UNC-Charlotte student who died protecting others during shooting

May 3, 2019

A North Carolina college student tackled a gunman who opened fire in his classroom, saving others’ lives but losing his own in the process, police said Wednesday.

Riley Howell, 21, was among students gathered for end-of-year presentations in an anthropology class at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte when a man with a pistol began shooting. Howell and another student, 19-year-old Ellis Parlier, were killed, and four others were wounded.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Howell “took the assailant off his feet” but was fatally wounded. He said Howell did what police train people to do in active shooter situations.

“You’re either going to run, you’re going to hide and shield, or you’re going to take the fight to the assailant. Having no place to run and hide, he did the last. But for his work, the assailant may not have been disarmed,” Putney said. “Unfortunately, he gave his life in the process. But his sacrifice saved lives.”

Howell’s family expressed pride at his sacrifice.

“I can picture him being big and large and protecting the people behind him,” his mother, Natalie Henry-Howell, told NBC News from the family’s home in Waynesville on Thursday. “The police officers were really adamant about letting us know that, once the gunman started firing, that, while kids were running one way, our kid turned and ran towards the shooter.”

“There is no question, there is no doubt, that he would do what he did, and I know that’s what he expected others to do for each other,” said sister Iris Howell, a student at North Carolina State University.

The father of Howell’s longtime girlfriend said news that he tackled the shooter wasn’t surprising.

Kevin Westmoreland, whose daughter Lauren dated Howell for nearly six years, said Howell was athletic and compassionate and would have been a good firefighter or paramedic.

“If Lauren was with Riley, he would step in front of a train for her if he had to,” Westmoreland said. “I didn’t realize it might come to that for somebody else.”

The motive for the shooting wasn’t clear.

Suspect Trystan Andrew Terrell had been enrolled at UNC-Charlotte but withdrew this semester, school spokeswoman Buffy Stephens said. Campus Police Chief Jeff Baker said Terrell had not appeared on their radar as a potential threat.

“I just went into a classroom and shot the guys,” Terrell told reporters Tuesday as officers led him handcuffed into a law enforcement building.

Terrell, 22, was charged with two counts of murder, four counts of attempted murder and other offenses.

Putney said the suspect didn’t appear to target any particular person but did deliberately pick the building. He wouldn’t elaborate on why. Authorities said the anthropology class was fairly large, without specifying how many students were present.

Putney said the handgun was legally purchased.

Terrell is under observation in police custody, and his father and attorney haven’t been allowed to speak to him, his grandfather Paul Rold said.

“His dad hasn’t a clue about what happened or why it happened,” said Rold, of Arlington, Texas.

Terrell was on the autism spectrum but was “clever as can be” and bright enough to learn foreign languages, Rold said. He said his grandson wasn’t very social.

In a statement, UNC-Charlotte said all of the victims were students. In addition to Howell and Parlier, Sean Dehart, 20, and Drew Pescaro, 19, both of Apex, Emily Houpt, 23, of Charlotte, and Rami Alramadhan, 20, of Saudi Arabia, were wounded.

“I think of all the things I have knowledge about that I wouldn’t have otherwise if this beautiful boy hadn’t been in my life,” Henry-Howell said. “I just wish, I just wish we had more of us like him. He’s a beautiful soul.”

On Wednesday night, thousands of students and others thronged the school’s basketball arena for a campus vigil. Student body president Chandler Crean wiped away tears as the school chancellor said they couldn’t emerge unchanged from the shooting but could emerge stronger. He later said the university needs to use the shock of what happened to change society.

“What happened yesterday cannot happen again,” Crean said.

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