Otto Warmbier‘s longtime girlfriend has made an emotional tribute at a vigil at the University of Virginia Tuesday following his death just days after being released from North Korea.
“Being with Otto made life all the more beautiful and worth living,” Alex Vagonis told the crowd of students and friends. “He was my soul mate on so many levels and I truly believe that he helped me become a better human being, the person that I am today.”
Warmbier, 22, died on Monday after returning home to Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 13 in a coma. He spent more than a year in the North Korea prison after being sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor for allegedly stealing a political propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel in January 2016.
The family announced his death in a statement, saying that the “awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we received today.”
Vagonis, who had dated Warmbier for more than a year prior to his detainment, said at the vigil that it was the support of her friends and family that has helped her through the heartbreaking months.
“It was not just my life he made more colorful, but everyone else’s,” she said. “Every person who had the privilege of interacting with him even just temporarily everyone felt the same magnetic affects of his presence.”
The UVA student recalled the night she met Warmbier at a party and was astonished by his “insane tie collection” – “We clicked instantly and the whirlwind of our growing relationship just took off from there.”
She also urged the public to remember the remaining three Americans being held captive in North Korea: Tony Kim, Kim Hak Song and Kim Dong Chul.
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Warmbier traveled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based travel company, and planned to stay in the country for five days before flying to Beijing for a 10-day tour. However, he was arrested while trying to board a plane on Jan. 2, 2016 and charged with “hostile acts against the state” for allegedly attempting to take down a large propaganda sign lauding the regime at his hotel in Pyongyang.
He delivered an emotional confession during his March 2016 trial, saying, “The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people.”
His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, told CNN in early May that they had had no contact with their son for more than a year.
North Korea reportedly told a U.S. official that Otto contracted botulism and slipped into the coma after taking a sleeping pill. The country said they released the college student on “humanitarian grounds.”