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Heroes and a question emerge from UNC Charlotte shooting: Why did attacker open fire?

UNCC student Riley Howell is remembered as a hero

CMPD Chief Kerr Putney says 21-year-old student, Riley Howell, was a hero in the April 30, 2019 shooting at UNC Charlotte. He was lauded for taking action and saving lives by tackling the gunman.
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CMPD Chief Kerr Putney says 21-year-old student, Riley Howell, was a hero in the April 30, 2019 shooting at UNC Charlotte. He was lauded for taking action and saving lives by tackling the gunman.

Heroes emerged from the bursts of gunfire that killed two UNC Charlotte students and injured four others in their classroom late Tuesday afternoon, stunning a sprawling campus of nearly 30,000 students on the last day of spring classes.

A former student with no criminal record, 22-year-old Trystan Andrew Terrell, was charged. Police say the shooter fired a handgun that was legally bought and inside a building that he knew. But he apparently didn’t specifically target any of his one-time classmates in a course on science and technology.

“It’s going to take a while to figure out all that happened and what’s more, why,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney told reporters. He added: “The randomness is what’s most concerning.”

Terrell himself offered only a cryptic clue as he was being led, handcuffed, into CMPD headquarters. “I just went into his classroom and shot the guy,” he appears to say in response to a reporter’s question that was captured on video by WBTV, The Charlotte Observer’s news partner.

Shots were reported in the Kennedy building, home to UNCC’s Center for Teaching and Learning, at about 5:40 p.m. Tuesday. Campus police clicked a button that lets them lock down nearly all campus buildings as officers raced to the classroom and quickly subdued Terrell.

Two people were killed and four injured in a shooting on the University of North Carolina Charlotte campus April 30, 2019. Here’s what we know so far.

By then two students, Ellis Parlier, 19, of Midland, and Riley Howell, 21, of Waynesville, had been fatally shot. Four more were injured: Rami Alramadhan, 20, of Saihat, Saudia Arabia; Sean Dehart, 20, of Apex; Emily Houpt, 23, of Charlotte; and Drew Pescaro, 19, of Apex. Dehart has been released from the hospital and the other wounded students are expected to recover, Chancellor Phil Dubois said Wednesday.

But the toll could have been much worse, Putney said. Howell tackled the shooter and saved other lives, the chief said.

The athletically-built young man “took the assailant off his feet” before campus police officers arrived, Putney told reporters. Howell was apparently the second student to be fatally shot, he said.

Howell “did exactly what we train people to do — you’re going to run, you’re going to hide and shield, or you’re going to face the assailant,” Putney said. “He did the latter (and) his sacrifice saved lives.”

UNCC police credited Sgt. Richard Gundacker and Lt. Sarah Smyre with quickly subduing Terrell.

“I never thought I’d have to do this,” Gundacker said. “I’ve been preparing for this for over 20 years, in my mind.”

CMPD officers lead suspected UNCC gunman into police headquarters April 30, 2019. Subtitles show what suspect appears to say after being asked, "what happened?"

Suspect had no record

Terrell lived in an apartment complex on Weddington Avenue, in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood, public records show. But he apparently had moved to the Novel NoDa apartments, residents there said.

He had previously lived in Mansfield, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth, records show. Records show that he registered to vote in Mecklenburg County in December 2014.

Terrell has no previous criminal record in North Carolina or Texas, according to state records. He has a first appearance in court scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

He’s charged with two counts of murder, four counts of attempted first-degree murder, four counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, discharging a firearm on educational property and possession of a gun on educational property, according to jail records.

WBTV, quoting the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, tweeted that the department had issued Terrell a gun purchase permit last Oct. 23 after passing criminal history and mental health background checks. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Tonya Rivens told the Observer she could not confirm that information, citing state confidentiality laws for permit holders.

Putney told reporters he was not aware of any mental health impairment documented for Terrell.

He attended Central Piedmont Community College from fall 2015 through spring 2018, studying for an associate’s degree in science, before transferring to UNCC, a CPCC spokesman said.

Cooper Creech, a 21-year-old UNCC junior, said he’d sat at the table next to Terrell’s in the Science, Technology & Society class where the shootings took place. Terrell apparently dropped the course, as he had two others, but Creech said he distinctly remembers him.

“The best description I can give you is the description I’ve been giving everyone, is ‘School Shooter 101’,” Creech said. “He was very quiet, never talked to his team, always wore really dark clothing ... but just very quiet.

UNC Charlotte students, faculty, and alumni, as well as the public attended shared their grief during a candlelight vigil for the students killed and injured during a campus shooting the previous day.

“There were two times that he spoke that I remember him speaking. He never raised his hand. It was always just, he would blurt out statements. And I remember them always being odd. I remember one time in particular he was angry about some topic that we were talking about. I can’t remember what it was, but I just remember thinking it was a topic that (he) shouldn’t be angry about.”

Community moving forward

UNCC largely halted operations Wednesday, suspending exams through Sunday and telling non-essential staff to stay home. Rattled students described hours of dread in locked-down buildings.

“He killed two people. He nearly fatally injured four people,” said Gabriel Maldonado, a freshman in computer engineering. “But he left hundreds with God knows what mentally.”

Student Chris Williams was studying in the library with a friend when someone ran into the room, screaming “shooter.” He ran with about 50 other people to a room at the back of the building, where they barricaded the door and waited. Williams texted his friends and family while he waited for an hour before being escorted out.

“It’s very surreal,” he said. “You never think its going to happen to you.”



Gov. Roy Cooper was scheduled to attend a student-organized vigil at UNCC’s Halton Arena Wednesday night.

Dubois, who had called Tuesday a day that “shakes us to our very core,” said students would be given flexibility to finish the term but that commencement would go forward as planned on May 10 and 11.

“If they intended to walk, they’ll walk,” he said.

Mayor Vi Lyles told reporters that, at conferences, she’d talked to other mayors of cities where mass shootings had taken place. “And here I am today,” she said.

“We, all of us, everyone in this community, stands in shock, and grief,” Lyles said. “We know tragedies like this can divide a community or can bring us together. It is our choice of how we move forward.”

Staff writers Teo Armus, Danielle Chemtob, Theoden Janes, Gavin Off and Katherine Peralta contributed.

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