Riley Howell was a lifelong Star Wars superfan. Now Howell, whom police called a hero for helping stop a gunman's rampage at UNC Charlotte, has been written into a galaxy far, far away as a Jedi master.
A character named Ri-Lee Howell appears in the newly published "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — The Visual Dictionary." Jedi knights are the lightsaber-wielding warrior heroes of the Star Wars universe.
Howell, 21, was fatally wounded when he rushed a gunman who opened fire in a classroom April 30. Another student, Reid Parlier, was killed, and four others were wounded, but police said Howell's actions effectively stopped the shooter.
"He took the fight to the assailant, and he unfortunately had to give his life doing so but he saved lives doing so," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said of Howell after the shooting. "What he did was he took the assailant off his feet and the heroes we have here were able to apprehend from there."
Howell, who grew up in Waynesville, was also an Army ROTC cadet and was awarded posthumous military honors for his actions. More than 1,500 people attended his funeral, and his story received national attention.
Matthew Westmoreland, a friend of Howell's and brother of Howell's longtime girlfriend, Lauren, said a letter from Lucasfilm Ltd. arrived at the funeral home that handled Howell's arrangements in May. Apparently, someone online read about Howell's interest in Star Wars and reached out to the company behind the franchise.
"Riley's courage and selflessness brings out the Jedi in all of us," Lucas Seastrom of Lucasfilm's Fan Relation Team wrote in the letter addressed to the Howell family.
Seastrom said that as a "small tribute" the Lucasfilm story group "has incorporated a re-imagining of Riley's name as a character in the Star Wars galaxy" in a book slated for release toward the end of the year. No details about the book were shared then.
On Sunday night, a text to Lauren Westmoreland from an old teacher brought the news. The teacher had bought the visual guide to "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," which opened in theaters Dec. 20. In it, he saw the name Ri-Lee Howell.
The character is described as a historian who preserved sacred texts.
"It's a book that's actually in the movie that he was the custodian of and this Jedi master who kept these records," Matthew Westmoreland told WFAE. "That's so perfect, because he had an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars. He could tell you anything about anything if you asked him. The fact that he's a historian in the Star Wars universe is just spot on. Whoever did their research did a really good job on that."
Westmoreland says Howell was such a huge fan that Howell's family brought his ashes to see the movie on opening night. When everyone realized Howell was officially a Star Wars character, Westmoreland says, they were elated.
And he shared the news to a Star Wars subreddit with 1.3 million members.
The reactions from fellow fans were overwhelmingly positive.
One user, identifying as a UNC Charlotte student, wrote "seeing this after going through that event makes the weight every UNC Charlotte student has been carrying since that day feel a little bit lighter for me at least and has reminded me that the good in the world is so much greater than the bad."
Westmoreland says family and friends hope more people learn not only about Howell and his actions, but about the impact gun violence leaves behind on the loved ones of victims. The Howell family started the Riley Howell Foundation as a fund to help organizations that give immediate support, such as counseling and funeral expenses, to victims of gun violence.
While he says Howell would be "over the moon" to learn he'd been added to the offical Star Wars canon, the slain student would probably think others were more deserving than himself.
"The fact that he's now a Jedi master is fitting for him, even if he wouldn't give himself that title, even if he was too humble to say it," Westmoreland said. "He was a hero to us even before this happened."