When Riley Howell's family heard about an active shooter at the University of North Carolina Charlotte campus, they weren't surprised to hear that the 21-year-old former soccer goalie had charged at the shooter.
"We knew if he was in that room," his mother, Natalie Henry-Howell told ABC affiliate WLOS. "He would have done something," Riley's younger sister Iris added, finishing her mother's thought in an interview with the Howell family on the porch of their home in Waynesville, North Carolina, late Friday.
On Tuesday night, a former student opened fire in a classroom on campus, killing Howell and 19-year-old Ellis Parlier of Midland, North Carolina, and injuring four others. The motive remains unknown, police said.
Chief Kerr Putney of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department called Howell a "hero" without whom “the assailant may not have been disarmed."
Howell charged at the gunman and "took the assailant off his feet," thereby "allowing officers to step in and apprehend him," Kerr said. "Unfortunately, he gave his life in the process. But his sacrifice saved lives.”
Howell's father, Thomas, said that they expected to hear that news as the family drove the 150 miles to Charlotte on Tuesday night, echoing the uniform sentiments of the family.
“At first we didn’t know he ran at the gunman, we just knew that he’d been shot, and, when we got told that, it was like a huge weight got lifted from your shoulders. You just thought, everything is right now. He did what he was supposed to do,” Riley’s other younger sister Juliet, said.
The Howell family appeared calm and composed as they spoke about the 21-year-old, who had been at the Charlotte campus for less than a year, studying military leadership. They expressed appreciation for the police work and the outpouring of support from the community.
“He was pretty much everything a big brother should be to us," Iris said. "He was funny. He was supportive, and he was very much a leader. He just loved us, loved the outdoors, loved his friends and family and things that mattered to him.”
"He's the only 20-year-old, 21-year-old, who would willingly fight his lightsaber with me," his 14-year-old brother Teddy interjected, referencing Riley's love of Star Wars and the fact that his brother had just recently turned 21 on April 30. His siblings noted that Riley didn't like to smile with his teeth showing, despite being the only child who didn't need braces.
In the obituary released by his family, as a unique and quirky loved one with big appetites for life, the outdoors, family, dogs, food, cooking and learning.
"On top of the passion he had for life and all living things, he valued being self-taught, whether that was in regard to learning about cars, cooking, weight lifting and fitness, Looney Tunes, plants and animals, or anything Star Wars and superhero related. He’s the only person we know who would read his entire car manual - for fun!," according to the obit.
"He had a wonderful sense of humor, with his own quirks, cracking jokes all day, and making anyone feel better no matter the circumstances," the obituary said. "He sought out hard work and enjoyed hands-on work. Even though he sometimes burned it, he loved making fried chicken in a cast iron skillet and trying out new recipes to make for his friends and family."
The Howell family received visitors on Saturday evening, making reference to "Star Wars Day" or May 4th, adding ""May the 4th be with you" to the obit. A memorial service will be held on Sunday.
Riley Howell had been taking military leadership classes, something his parents had always had interest in. "The military leadership class fit him well," his mother said.
The Wells Funeral Homes told ABC News he would be buried with military honors.
Riley's mother Natalie, an educator, who works at a middle school and has discussed gun safety at work, said the family was hoping to find meaning in the young man's death.
"Fear less, and do more," his mom said. "The color drained out of the world that moment. We're feeling our way to what might happen next. If this can have some kind of power or impact to help us or other to just think and do...and straight like a rocket, do the right thing. If we can facilitate that in anyway, we'll try. We just went his legacy to be...remembered... Our fierce angel in heaven."