‘Our family, our friends, our sons.’ Honoring the UNCC students killed on campus

UNC Charlotte students Riley Howell and Ellis Parlier grew up in different parts of North Carolina, each from small towns about 170 miles apart. They didn’t have much in common. Howell loved sports and being outside; Parlier dreamed of developing video games one day.

The fates of the two young men tragically intertwined this week, when a gunman opened fire on campus Tuesday evening, killing Howell and Parlier and injuring four others.

Howell, 21, was from Waynesville, outside of Asheville, and majored in environmental science, according to a memo Wednesday from UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois. Parlier, 19, was from Midland, about 20 miles east of Charlotte, and had intended to major in computer science.

The UNC Charlotte faculty has approved degrees in memoriam for them, Dubois said in his memo addressed to students, faculty and staff.

“Some of us knew these young men as our students, our classmates, our friends, our family, our sons,” Dubois said. “For all of us, they were fellow members of Niner Nation, and we will learn and forever remember their names and their legacy.”

UNCC also said four students 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. Dubois said he visited three victims in the hospital. He confirmed that Dehart was released Tuesday. He said his understanding was that two students would be released, but Pescaro would be kept in the hospital.

‘A big heart’

Howell, who transferred from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in fall 2018, was hailed as a hero following the shooting. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney told reporters at a Wednesday press conference that Howell saved lives by tackling the shooter.

That behavior jibes with the Howell remembered by Xenna Smith, a high school friend who attends N.C. State University. She described Howell as a selfless “ray of sunshine” who had a way of making everyone feel like a friend.

His family and longtime girlfriend Lauren Westmoreland were interviewed Thursday by NBC’s “Today” show and told the network they were comforted by details Putney shared of how Howell conducted himself.

“We are just beyond proud of what he was able to do,” Natalie Henry-Howell, Riley’s mother, told “Today.” “While kids were running one way, our son turned and ran towards the shooter.”

“If he was in the room when something like that was happening, and he had turned away, he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself,” she told the show.

Howell’s 14-year-old brother, Teddy, told “Today” that he has no doubt his brother acted heroically. “He put others before himself...He always has,” he said in the interview.

Howell graduated from T.C. Roberson High School in 2016, Buncombe County Schools spokeswoman Stacia Harris confirmed. His mother works at Valley Springs Middle School, she added.

Riley Howell’s graduation photo from TC Roberson High School WTBV

Howell’s family said in a statement that he enjoyed “Star Wars,” cars, snowboarding, going to the lake and spending time with his girlfriend.

“He was always able to put others before himself and never hesitated to help anyone who needed it. He was friends with anyone and everyone — a big muscular guy with a big heart,” Howell’s family said in a statement.

In a series of statements released by the Buncombe school district Wednesday, Howell’s teachers and coaches wrote that he was cheerful and loved the outdoors.

He was “easy to love” and loved others, English teacher Tristen Plemmons wrote. She said she could still remember where Howell sat in her classroom, adding that he was full of enthusiasm for life.

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Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.