Police are calling the 21-year-old the "first and foremost hero" in bringing the shooting to an end.

By Meghan Overdeep
May 02, 2019
Matthew Westmoreland/Courtesy Howell Family

When a gunman opened fire in a University of North Carolina at Charlotte classroom on Tuesday, everyone ran for cover—everyone except for Riley Howell. With nowhere to go, police say the 21-year-old ran towards the shooter, charging into him and knocking him to the ground.

Shot "point blank" by the gunman he rushed, Riley, of Waynesville, North Carolina, died for his efforts. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney told CNN he was the "first and foremost hero" in bringing the shooting to an end.

"He took the fight to the assailant," Putney said. "Unfortunately, he had to give his life to do so, but he saved lives doing so."

Riley, an athletic former soccer goalie, reportedly knocked the gunman off his feet, which helped lead to his capture.

Another student, 19-year-old Reed Parlier of Midland, North Carolina, was also killed in the attack. Four other students were wounded. Police are confident that many more casualties would have resulted if not for Riley.

Riley's devastated parents Natalie and Thomas Howell told Today that they weren't surprised to hear of their son's heroic efforts.

"We are just beyond proud of what he was able to do," Natalie said. "While kids were running one way, our son turned and ran towards the shooter."

Lucas Tate, 20, who counts himself one of Riley's best friends, told the Asheville Citizen-Times that Riley "was one of the most loving and caring people I have ever met."

"He had an amazing soul," he continued. "He always brought light into the room and he just cared about people more than himself. He was just that kind of person."

Lucas said hearing of Riley's decision to rush the gunman made "complete sense."

"That would just be exactly something he would do in that situation," he concluded.

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In addition to his parents, Riley leaves behind two sisters and a brother—Iris, Juliet, and Teddy—and a girlfriend of nearly six years, Lauren Westmoreland.

"He is my hero," Lauren told The New York Times, adding that she was overcome with grief. "But he's just my angel now, as well."

In a statement, Riley's family said he'd considered a career in the military or firefighting, and always stood up for what he believed.

"His faith was strong, and he knew what he had to do when people needed him most," the statement said. "He was always the guy you could count on and he delivered."