Otto Warmbier, American student freed by North Korea, dies at 22

Last Updated Jun 19, 2017 11:45 PM EDT

Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was freed from North Korean custody last week, has died, his family confirms. He was 22.

His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said in a statement that he died surrounded by loved ones at 2:20 p.m. on Monday.

"It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost -- future time that won't be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person," the family said in a statement.

Warmbier was detained in January 2016 while visiting North Korea at the end of a five-day tour. He was later sentenced to 15 years hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner at his hotel.

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American student Otto Warmbier is presented to reporters on Feb. 29, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea, following his arrest.

AP

He was in a coma when he was sent home to the U.S. last week, and a spokesperson with the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said he had suffered a severe neurological injury.

"When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable -- almost anguished. Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed -- he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that," the family said.

The family did not mention any specific cause of death.

Doctors who treated Warmbier said that he suffered severe injuries to all areas of his brain during his detainment, causing "extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain." Brain scans taken by North Koreans in April 2016 and provided to physicians indicated that he suffered the brain injury shortly after his conviction in March of last year.

His father, Fred Warmbier, previously said he did not believe North Korea's explanation that the coma resulted from botulism and a sleeping pill. He said there was no reason for North Korea to keep his son's condition a secret and deny him medical care.

President Trump on Monday said that he and first lady Melania Trump offer their deepest condolences to the Warmbier family.

"There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto's family and friends, and all who loved him," Mr. Trump said in a statement.

"Otto's fate deepens my Administration's determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim," the statement said.

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Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old college student who was released from a North Korean prison, holds a press conference on June 15, 2017 in Wyoming, Ohio.

Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also called on North Korea to release the three other American citizens who are held in the country.

"We hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier's unjust imprisonment, and demand the release of three other Americans who have been illegally detained," Tillerson said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Reuters news agency is reporting that South Korea's Blue House on Tuesday cited South Korea President Moon Jae-in saying "it is very deplorable that North Korea does not respect human rights."

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said the death "touches the American heart like no other."

The family thanked professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center on Monday, but said the "awful torturous mistreatment" by North Koreans "ensured that no other outcome was possible" beyond their son's death.

The tour group Warmbier traveled with, Young Pioneers Tours, called North Korea's treatment of the student "appalling" and said it would no longer organize tours to bring U.S. citizens to the country.

"There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that has ended with such tragic finality and we have been struggling to process the result. Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high," the statement read. "Considering these facts and this tragic outcome we will no longer be organising tours for US citizens to North Korea."

Danny Gratton, Warmbier's former roommate and a member of the tour, told The Washington Post last week that he was surprised to hear of the allegations against his friend.

"He was just a young lad who wanted a bit of adventure," Gratton said. "Every once in awhile they single out someone to make a point, and this was just Otto's turn. It's so sick and warped and unnecessary and evil."

U.S. lawmakers offered their own statements of grief shortly after the family confirmed the 22-year-old's death.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Warmbier "lived the nightmare in which the North Korean people have been trapped for 70 years: forced labor, mass starvation, systematic cruelty, torture, and murder."

Ohio Governor John Kasich, said all Ohioans are mourning Warmbier's death, and called him a "young man of exceptional spirit."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said on Twitter that he's praying for the Warmbier family. "The strength and love of their family continues to inspire us all," Brown tweeted.

"He had all the talent you could ever ask for and a bright future ahead of him," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement.

Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota issued a statement on Twitter. "My heart goes out to the loved ones of Otto Warmbier. Thinking of Otto's family & friends, & wishing them strength during this tragic time," he said.

Warmbier was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was the eldest of three children. He graduated from Wyoming High School in 2013 and was accepted to the University of Virginia, where he studied both commerce and economics.

Wyoming City School District officials said they were "deeply saddened" by the news. "The countless contributions he made to his school and community through his leadership, actions, and limitless enthusiasm will be felt far into the future," the statement said.

Warmbier's family said he was a "warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds."