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Ohio city makes plans for funeral of student held by North Korea

Volunteers tie ribbons on a fence in preparation for Otto Warmbier’s funeral in Wyoming, Ohio, on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, died this week after being detained for nearly a year and a half in North Korea. (Dake Kang / Associated Press)
Volunteers tie ribbons on a fence in preparation for Otto Warmbier’s funeral in Wyoming, Ohio, on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, died this week after being detained for nearly a year and a half in North Korea. (Dake Kang / Associated Press)
By Dake Kang and Dan Sewell Tribune News Service

WYOMING, Ohio – About 50 volunteers tied blue and white ribbons along a road leading from a high school to a cemetery in the hometown of a college student who was detained for nearly a year and a half in North Korea and was returned home in a coma last week and died days later.

Wyoming officials say the celebration of life for 22-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier will be Thursday in the Wyoming High School auditorium. The service is open to the public but not the media.

The Hamilton County coroner is trying to determine the cause of Warmbier’s death Monday. Warmbier was accused in January 2015 of trying to steal a propaganda banner at his hotel while visiting North Korea, tearfully confessed and was convicted of subversion.

Ohio’s Republican U.S. senator said Wednesday he had a secret meeting with North Korean officials in New York last December to press for Warmbier’s release. Sen. Rob Portman wouldn’t provide many details but said the diplomats indicated they would relay his request.

The senator, from the Cincinnati area, said he planned to attend Warmbier’s funeral in Wyoming, a Cincinnati suburb. Also attending will be Ambassador Joseph Yun, the U.S. special envoy who traveled to Pyongyang to bring Warmbier back, and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, the Department of State said.

At a candlelight vigil Tuesday on the University of Virginia campus, Warmbier’s girlfriend at the time of his detention described the loss of a soul mate. Alex Vagonis said she drew some peace from knowing Warmbier got home to Ohio before his death.

An organizer working with volunteers didn’t want them to speak to reporters on Wednesday morning as they decorated the route in the school’s colors for the final trip of the adventurous student, fondly remembered at his high school as popular, smart and active in sports.

Earlier this week, Jay Klein, a rising sophomore at DePauw University, recalled joining the Wyoming High soccer team as a freshman and getting to know Warmbier as one of the friendliest, most spirited seniors playing.

“Walking around the hallways at school, you don’t really expect seniors to come up to you as a freshman,” Klein said. “He was one of the only guys who would come up to me and ask me how my day was doing and that kind of thing.”

Klein said fellow players looked up to Warmbier on and off the field, admiring his light-hearted spirit, his passion for the game and his love for travel.

Molly Cain met Warmbier when he coached her 12-year-old son, Robby, at the Wyoming swim club. At the time, Robby was shy, Cain said, and Warmbier helped him come out of his shell.

“Once he started working with Otto, he couldn’t wait to go,” Cain said. “It was like, `Not only do I get to swim, I get to swim with someone I totally look up to who’s older than me, and he’s cool, and he’s fun, and he thinks I’m great!“’

She said he was in tears after Warmbier died.

Warmbier’s family objected to an autopsy, so the Hamilton County coroner’s office conducted only an external examination of his body. Medical records have been reviewed, and his condition was discussed extensively by treating physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was hospitalized after his June 13 return.

Wambier’s parents cited “awful, torturous mistreatment” by North Korea. Doctors last week said he suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause.

He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years in prison with hard labor. His family said it was told he had been in a coma since soon after his sentencing.

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