UNC Charlotte hero Riley Howell remembered with full military honors

Updated: May. 5, 2019 at 4:56 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) student and ROTC Cadet Riley Howell was put to rest with full military honors Sunday afternoon.

Howell died tackling a gunman on UNCC’s campus Tuesday evening.

“Riley was a lion," said Brent Plott, a CMPD officer with the University Division. “Everyone wants to be a lion until it’s time to do lion stuff, that’s what separates them."

The memorial service got underway at 5 p.m. Sunday at Wells Funeral Homes in the Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska. The family received friends from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday in the Wells Events & Reception Center.

“Riley was an adventurous guy who loved the outdoors, whether he was kayaking through inlets on the ocean, canoeing down cold mountain rivers, or screaming with excitement as he tried to do a front flip off the rope swing at Fontana Lake,” a program at Wells Funeral Home read. “He had his own unique close relationship with each sibling, family member and friend, that reflected his deep-seated bear-hug love.”

Howell is survived by his two sisters, a brother, parents, and grandparents.

“Thank you for being my hero before you were everyone’s," one of Howell’s best friends said at Sunday’s memorial service. Several people close to Howell spoke Sunday, including his siblings, his girlfriend, one of his best friends, and the parents of his girlfriend, Lauren Westmoreland.

“You’re a free spirit, No one could hold you down," Westmoreland said. “I love you endlessly, fiercely and without pause.”

“We know our Riley’s love and legacy will live on forever,” Howell’s sister said.

Reverend Dr. Robert M. Blackburn spoke about Howell, who he says he’s known since Howell was baptized as 6 months old. “He’s a one of a kind, never to be repeated human being," Blackburn said. “God made Riley and he said, that’s the best I can do.”

Howell’s cousin was the last to speak before the military services got underway. Howell said the “Riley Howell Foundation” was being launched to help families impacted by mass violence, including the family of UNC Charlotte shooting victim Ellis Reed Parlier.

A petition was filed Wednesday asking the White House to give Howell a military funeral.

Others with the US Veterans Hall of Fame came to Howell’s funeral service to present an honor to his family.

“We are going to honor him in the same way he honored this country by inducting him into the hall of fame,” said Curtis Drafton, co-founder of the US Veterans Hall of Fame.

When members of Riley’s family heard the news, Bill Douglas with the US Veterans Hall of Fame said “it was very emotional for them and we considered that a great honor.”

Howell tackled a gunman who opened fire in a classroom on UNC Charlotte’s campus Tuesday evening. Police say the 21-year-old’s actions delayed the shooter, giving police more time to respond and fellow students a chance to escape.

“Riley was an ROTC cadet and would have served his country. Instead, he died saving the lives of his classmates,” the petition reads. “For his heroism, we ask the Riley be given a burial with full military honors."

Lieutenant Colonel Chunka Smith, who runs UNCC’s ROTC program that Howell participated in, told WBTV’s Anne Marie Hagerty that Howell “stood out.” Smith said he’s not surprised Howell gave his life for others, and he feels a sense of pride in what his cadet did.

“I do. Absolutely,” Smith said. “As a soldier we understand what it means to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

That sentiment was shared by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, who spoke about Howell’s selfless act at a press conference on Wednesday.

Putney said Howell “did exactly what we train people to do: 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.”

“His sacrifice saved lives,” Putney added.

On Thursday, Howell’s body was taken from Charlotte to his hometown of Waynesville. The procession had a police escort the entire way, and people lined the streets to honor the fallen student.

Nineteen-year-old Ellis R. Parlier of Midland, NC, was killed along with Howell in the shooting.

[ UNCC shooting victim Reed Parlier remembered as ‘a beautiful soul.’ ]

Four other students - 20-year-old Rami Alramadhan of Saudi Arabia, 20-year-old Sean Dehart of Apex, NC, 23-year-old Emily Houpt of Charlotte, and 19-year-old Drew Pescaro of Apex, NC - were injured in the shooting.

If not for Howell’s heroic actions, officials say, more lives would have been at risk.

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