Justin Little was a fun-loving young college student with a sense of adventure. Now his grieving family is left to wonder whether that adventuresome spirit may have led to his bludgeoning death.
Little, 21, from Silverton, Ore., was found slain in a gritty Paris suburb Oct. 9, 18 days after heading to France to get an up-close look at the famous sights he had read about in books. But police in France, as well as the Little family, are baffled as to what Little was doing in downscale Aulnay-sous-Bois, nowhere near the famous Paris tourist attractions of the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower.
The case, profiled on TODAY Friday, leaves a shroud of mystery around Little’s tragic death. His best friend, Kevin Zade, told NBC affiliate KGW in Portland he had heard from Little while he was on his French adventure, and “he sounded like he was having a great time, seeing the sights. He was living his dream.”
Spreading his wings
Justin, the oldest of four Little children, decided to go alone to France to “spread his wings; he wanted to do this himself,” his mother, Tanya Little, told NBC.
Justin’s father, Jim Little, said he tried to talk his son out of making the trip solo. “We tried to dissuade him,” he told Oregon’s Statesman-Journal newspaper. “He was set, he was determined and nothing we could say or do would change his mind.”
Little’s parents suspected something went awry during Little’s trip. He was due back Oct. 5. When he didn’t arrive, they filed a missing person’s report.
Their worst fears were realized when they were notified Oct. 13 that their son’s body had been found four days earlier by a passerby in an expansive park in Aulnay-sous-Bois, part of an area of the suburb known for crime, poverty and unrest among its largely immigrant population.
“We don’t know exactly what happened,” a police spokesman told Portland’s The Oregonian newspaper. “He was hit in the head with a cinder block.” Police have not determined how long he had been dead when his body was found, but said Little was killed instantly.
While police continue to wonder what Little might have been doing in a dicey area — a place not served by the subway system, where few tourists ever tread — Little’s parents say they believe their son may have been in the park to investigate historical markers, or was on his way to Charles de Gaulle International Airport to come home (Aulnay-sous-Bois lies halfway between central Paris and the airport).
Town in mourning
Meanwhile, Little’s close-knit community of 9,000 is in mourning.
An enthusiastic outdoorsman, former member of the Boy Scouts and actor in high school plays, Little was “well liked by his friends and teachers,” his former principal, Andy Bellando, told The Oregonian. He was enrolled at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore.
Jim Little told the Statesman-Journal his son headed to France with the best of intentions, to further “his long-standing interest in history — he was a bottomless well of information.” But now the Little family is left to pick up the pieces of what went wrong during his trip.
For now, the devout Catholic family’s first priority is getting Little’s body back to Oregon for funeral services. But French authorities are currently retaining the body as they continue their investigation.