CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina college student slain while confronting a gunman in his classroom was being given a hero’s send-off Thursday as his body was returned to his hometown with a police escort.
Police motorcycles and other vehicles with blue lights flashing quickly left a funeral home and started their 150-mile journey west from Riley Howell’s college home in Charlotte to his mountain hometown of Waynesville. Television footage of the police escort showed dozens of people holding U.S. flags lining the street as the procession turned into the funeral home in his hometown. Howell’s mother later hugged every police officer in the procession.
Traffic stopped along busy, four-lane Charlotte streets as the procession went by.
Meanwhile, the suspect accused of killing Howell and another student at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte while wounding four others chose not to appear in court Thursday so a judge could read charges against him of two counts of first-degree murder and four counts of first-degree attempted murder.
Howell died in his classroom Tuesday after charging and tackling the gunman who opened fire with a legally obtained pistol, authorities said.
Howell’s decision to fight for the lives of others fit his character, said friend David Belnap, who attended a candlelight vigil Wednesday with a homemade T-shirt with “Riley Howell is a hero” written on the back.
“It seems very much like something he would do. I want that to be his legacy, that he lost his life to protect those he cared about,” the sophomore said.
Howell, 21, knocked the assailant down, buying enough time for the first officer into the classroom to capture Trystan Andrew Terrell, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said.
The motive behind the shooting wasn’t clear. Detectives aren’t sure if the gunman, who had a lot of ammunition, was targeting anyone specifically Tuesday, but they know he picked out the Kennedy Building and gave no indication he was going to stop shooting before Howell charged, Putney said.
“His sacrifice saved lives,” the chief said.
In a statement, UNC-Charlotte said all the victims were students, five from North Carolina and one international. Howell, of Waynesville, and Ellis R. Parlier, 19 of Midland, were killed. Those wounded were Sean Dehart, 20, and Drew Pescaro, 19, both of Apex; Emily Houpt, 23, of Charlotte; and Rami Alramadhan, 20, of Saihat, Saudi Arabia.
Terrell had been enrolled at the school but withdrew this semester, UNC-Charlotte 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 will remain in jail at least until his bond hearing scheduled for May 15.
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 Tuesday’s shooting, but they could emerge stronger. He later said the university needs to use the shock of what happened to make the world better.
“What happened yesterday cannot happen again,” Crean said.
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 what happened in that room is what they say, I completely see Riley doing that,” Kevin Westmoreland said. “He was just the kind of person, if someone tripped and fell, he would be the first one to try to help them.”
He was “a big, muscular guy with a huge heart,” Howell’s family said in a statement Wednesday.
“He always was able to put others before himself and never hesitated to help anyone who needed it,” the statement read.
Howell was enrolled in a second semester of ROTC courses at UNC-Charlotte, though he wasn’t among those pursuing a career as a military officer, said Lt. Col. Chunka Smith, who runs the school’s Army ROTC program. Howell would have been taught in ROTC to seek cover if confronted by a gunman rather than fight, Smith said.
“But I just believe it’s inherent in those who take the class, based off of their backgrounds and their upbringing … that someone would actually sacrifice themselves for others,” Smith said.
Sarah Blake Morgan in Charlotte; Martha Waggoner and Emery P. Dalesio in Raleigh; and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.