A 21-year-old who died saving his classmates in the UNC Charlotte shooting is being honored as a Jedi Master in a new book about the Star Wars universe.
Riley Howell was killed on April 30 when he tackled a shooter who'd entered his classroom wielding a gun. Police said he "took the assailant off his feet," allowing officers to make the arrest.
Howell and one other student, 19-year-old Ellis "Reed" Parlier, were killed in the shooting. Police said Howell's quick thinking and courage "saved lives," but "unfortunately [he] had to give his life to do so."
In a statement after his death, Howell's family said he was selfless, had a big heart, and was a huge Star Wars fan.
"He loved Star Wars, birds, cards, snowboarding, going to the lake, Kentucky Hot Browns cooking from scratch with cast iron while listening to the Feel Good Classic Soul playlist, and his Lauren," his family said. "He could also put away a pizza."
After he was killed, Howell had trees planted in his name, flags flown at half-mast, and many other accolades in his memory. But none feel more fitting than the one he just received, his girlfriend of nearly six years, Lauren Westmoreland, told BuzzFeed News.
In a TikTok video on Monday, Westmoreland announced that a tribute to Howell appears in the new book Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — The Visual Dictionary, which came out Friday to coincide with the release of the new movie.
In the visual dictionary, "Ri-Lee Howell" is named as a "Jedi Master and historian of the Jedi Order."
Westmoreland told BuzzFeed News they first got a hint of what was to come in May, just weeks after Howell died, when his family received a letter from Lucasfilm — the production company that makes Star Wars — saying it wanted to use his name in an upcoming book.
They did not get any more details about what the book was, or what Howell's role in it would be. It wasn't until Westmoreland got a message from one of her old teachers on Saturday that she found out what it was all about.
"He was like, 'Hey, is this just a weird coincidence, or is this supposed to be real?'" she said of their conversation. "I looked at it and read the little excerpt — and it was Ri-Lee Howell, Jedi Master."
Westmoreland said she and her whole family were "freaking out," and she immediately told Howell's family. They all thought it was incredible.
"I was just totally overwhelmed with happiness, because I know how happy it is making Riley," she said. "It’s this thing I know he would have always wanted. Little kid Riley would love it, and adult Riley would love it just as much."
A spokesperson for Lucasfilm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Howell grew up watching the films with his family and had enjoyed poring over the franchise's visual dictionaries since he was very young. This makes the tribute especially moving, Westmoreland said.
"They say he’s a historian and he’s preserved these Jedi texts," she said. "I think he was so analytical and knew everything there was to know about every little detail of Star Wars. They couldn’t have picked a better character to make him."
"I think he deserved it, because I think he deserves the world," she added.
The months since Howell died haven't been easy, Westmoreland said, but December has been particularly hard. They would have celebrated their sixth anniversary on Dec. 6, and his birthday was a week later.
"The weekend before he was actually killed, we had texted and said for our six-year anniversary we were going to go see the new movie," she said. "We ended up going to see it with him anyway — we took some of his ashes with us to the theater, and we all went, my family and his, to go see it."
Seeing Howell honored in this way has been exciting and "completely overwhelming," she said.
"It’s been really bittersweet, but the positivity that’s come out of it has kind of outweighed the sadness for a little while, which is a really nice change of pace," Westmoreland said. "A lot of it sometimes just weighs you down, but this has lifted us all up."
"Having this positive thing come out this time of year, it’s just the best Christmas gift any of us could’ve ever received given the circumstances," she added. "It makes it just a little bit okay."