'Star Wars' fan who saved classmates in shooting honored as Jedi

'He had a very strong sense of good and evil'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A North Carolina college student hailed by police as a hero for preventing more injuries and deaths after a gunman opened fire in a classroom has now been immortalized as a Jedi by the production company for the Star Wars franchise.

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News outlets report the family of Riley Howell, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte student who is described as a huge Star Wars fan, was tipped off by Lucasfilm in May that it planned to honor him in a forthcoming book, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - The Visual Dictionary.” The book was released by publisher DK to coincide with the release of the new film “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

In May, the fan relations team for Lucasfilm wrote a letter to Howell's family expressing condolences.

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"Riley's courage and selflessness brings out the Jedi in all of us," wrote fan relations team member Lucas Seastrom. “We hope that you may rejoice in his memory, and we join you in honoring his life and example.”

"As a small tribute, our Story Group has incorporated a reimagining of Riley's name as a character in the Star Wars galaxy," Seastrom continued. " ... The Force will be with Riley, and all of you, always..."

Riley Howell was hailed as a hero by police for preventing more injuries and deaths after a gunman opened fire in a University of North Carolina-Charlotte classroom in April 2019. (Matthew Westmoreland via AP, File)

The entry in the book is just 66 words, but credits Jedi master and historian “Ri-Lee Howell” with collecting “many of the earliest accounts of exploration and codifications of The Force.”

Riley Howell’s mother, Natalie Henry-Howell, told The Charlotte Observer that that this actually marks the second time her son has appeared in a “Star Wars” book: When he was a little boy, an uncle had a personalized book made for Riley that put him in the starring role of “The Phantom Menace.”

“It was a big hit of a gift,” she recalls, noting that the inclusion in the new book is far more significant.

'That really made me cry when I heard about it.”

- Natalie Henry-Howell

“And I like the way they actually left his last name,” Henry-Howell says. “I think he would really be appreciative of that. Because, you know, they could have just said Ri-Lee — Jedi Ri-Lee — and we’d be guessing the whole time about whether or not that was really (him), but they put his last name in there just to really honor him ... and that really made me cry when I heard about it.”

The entire family went to see the new movie on opening night. They brought his ashes, and left a seat open for him.

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“I think,” Henry-Howell says, “he would have liked the way it ended.”

Howell, 21, and a classmate died April 30 when a gunman opened fire in a classroom in the Kennedy building on UNCC’s campus. Four other students were injured, but police say Howell’s actions prevented more injuries or loss of life.

"You're either going to run, hide and shield, or you're going to take the fight to the assailant," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Chief Kerr Putney said. “Having no place to run and hide, he did the last.”

Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and Daisy Ridley in "Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker." ( J.J. Abrams)

Lauren Westmoreland, Howell's longtime girlfriend, said in an email, that the honor of becoming a Jedi was one that was close to his heart.

"Though he wasn’t an artist, he loved to draw the clone trooper helmets all the time, sometimes even on my birthday cards," Westmoreland said. "

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Lauren's father, Kevin Westmoreland, said Howell studied the Star Wars universe for most of his life.

"He had a very strong sense of good and evil, and how to live life as someone who looked out for others," Westmoreland said. “Seeing him listed as both a Jedi and a historian in Star Wars lore is a perfect way to connect him to this story and the characters he loved.”