Remembering former UCF student Steven Sotloff

Remembering former UCF student Steven Sotloff

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Around the world, the Internet was abuzz on Tuesday as reports surfaced with news Americans had feared — Miami native and former University of Central Florida student Steven Joel Sotloff had been beheaded by the Islamic State.

In his hometown of Miami, the Associated Press reported that mourners gathered outside of the Sotloff home, but his parents did not come outside. It had been nearly a week since Nancy Sotloff released a video plea to the Islamic State to spare her son's life.

Donning an orange jumpsuit, identical to the one slain-journalist James Foley wore in the first video, Sotloff, 31, faced the camera with a black-clad man armed with a knife standing behind him and spoke to President Barack Obama.

"You've spent billions of U.S. taxpayers' dollars, and we've lost thousands of our troops in our previous fighting against the Islamic State," Sotfloff said. "So where is the people's interest in reigniting this war?"

The militant, who appears to be the same man who beheaded Foley, appears in the video next and blamed President Barack Obama.

"I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy toward the Islamic State," the man says.

He continued: "You, Obama, have but to gain from your actions but another American citizen. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people."

With surroundings of a desert, the militant is then shown beheading Sotloff and threatening British aid worker David Haines.

Who was Steven Sotloff?

Emerson Lotzia Jr., one of Sotloff's roommates from their time at UCF, still has voicemails from his college buddy. Time-stamped Feb. 2013, the two kept up after Sotloff left the university in 2004.

Sotloff was a UCF student from 2002-04, and was a pending journalism major. He left the university to return home to Miami. After he left UCF, he began to focus on working as a correspondent in the Middle East.

While at UCF, Sotloff was a senior staff writer for the Central Florida Future. He covered politics, international issues and breaking news. As a freelance journalist, he worked for Time and other publications while working in Turkey, Syria, Somalia and Iraq.

"He said it was scary over there; it was dangerous. It wasn't safe to be over there — he knew it," Lotzia told the Central Florida Future after the first video was released. "He kept going back."

In many trips to the Middle East over the past decade, Sotloff's desire to tell stories is evident. He spent time in some of the world's most heated locations. The last Facebook post he made speaks of the constant danger that is present.

"Riot police came out for some reason in Antakya today," Sotloff's post reads. "I was pepper sprayed in the face and thrown to the ground. Some plain-clothed cops then confiscated my camera and detained me. They were very cordial after and even returned my camera a few hours later (with a blank memory card, of course). Moral of the story: don't take pictures of Turkish riot police in action."

That was just a day in the life of a reporter on the front lines.

Sotloff was a Miami Dolphins and Miami Heat fan. Even in the Middle East, he had discovered ways of staying up-to-date on American sports.

Close to home

On campus, the news broke while Kimberly Voss, an area coordinator for the university, was teaching the honors section of her media law class. In the classroom sat future journalists, broadcasters and public relations specialists.

"Someone has to do that ... not all of us are willing to take the kind of chances as those who cover dangerous combat-type journalism," she said. "That's a special kind of person, but they do it on behalf of all of us."

While talks of Sotloff certainly inspire fear in many young journalists, that is not the case for UCF alumnus and war veteran Fred Lambert. He said he one day hopes to return to the front lines, where he spent two tours in Iraq. However, this time, he hopes to be donning a pen, paper and camera, rather than a rifle and explosives. For Lambert, Sotloff's death is a situation he knows all too well. While he was in Iraq, Lambert knew of multiple Americans who had been beheaded.

"I wasn't very surprised today," Lambert said. "My heart dropped when I saw that they had him, because I knew that he was going to die."

Lambert spent 14 months, or two tours, in the Middle East as a Marine. He befriended a freelance photojournalist named Max Becherer, who worked for Time, which fueled his ambition "to cover war."

"To me, it didn't seem really dangerous because Max was always attached to us, and we were a company of Marines," Lambert said. "These guys, Foley and Sotloff, are freelance journalists and they were out there on their own — that's dangerous."

Lambert graduated in August from UCF with a journalism degree and a minor in history.

To honor Sotloff, UCF students from the athletics fan group "The Gauntlet" and the UCF chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, in conjunction with the Syrian American Council and hosted a vigil at the university.

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