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American Student Otto Warmbier Released From North Korean Prison

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People in Otto Warmbier's hometown of Wyoming, Ohio, have been closely following reports about his arrest and imprisonment in North Korea. Ann Thompson of member station WVXU in Cincinnati reports that many are upset by today's news.

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Bonnie Dierker was on her way out of the Wyoming library with a handful of books and stopped to comment about Otto Warmbier.

BONNIE DIERKER: The whole thing is just tragic. Otto is just a really nice guy, a nice person, a good student, good athlete.

THOMPSON: Dierker has known the Warmbier family for years and was heartbroken when she heard the University of Virginia student had been detained while visiting North Korea 18 months ago. He had reportedly stolen a propaganda sign from a hotel. After a trial in March 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. After that, it apparently got worse. His parents were told last week he had been in a coma for more than a year.

DIERKER: You know, the whole North Korean thing is just awful. And the only blessing I think now is that he is on his way home and, you know, he is out of there.

THOMPSON: Wyoming is a close-knit community of 8,400 people. For months, people weren't talking about Warmbier's situation for fear that North Korea would hurt or kill him. Resident Neal Notestine can't imagine what the family has been through.

NEAL NOTESTINE: But the news today that he's released in my opinion is a gift from God. And I just pray that the family and he can recover.

THOMPSON: Taylor Marie Smith graduated from high school with Otto Warmbier's brother and has been following the news on social media from her college in Chicago. She is hoping for the best.

TAYLOR MARIE SMITH: It just seems so weird that this kid from little bitty old Wyoming, Ohio, that most people in Cincinnati don't even know exists could possibly have had this happen to him.

THOMPSON: Otto's father, Fred Warmbier, told NPR his 22-year-old son had been beaten, brutalized and terrorized by North Korea. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and others had been working for his release through the Swedish embassy in North Korea.

SHERROD BROWN: North Korea's despicable actions of detaining and holding Otto - they're unacceptable. They must be condemned. We must continue working to free all Americans who are being held illegally and cruelly.

THOMPSON: Warmbier is on his way back to the U.S. and reportedly will land tonight. For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "JYNWEYTHEK YLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.