PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Candles lit up the plaza of a central Arizona courthouse Wednesday as hundreds gathered to honor the American woman pictured before them who was taken hostage by Islamic State militants.
Kayla Mueller's death earlier this month was confirmed by her family and U.S. officials. The 26-year-old international aid worker from Prescott, Arizona, had been captured in Syria in August 2013.
Friends, family and strangers wore pink ribbons on their shirts as they listened to speakers reflect on Mueller's life and work. Strangers and friends dropped off cards and wrote messages for a scrapbook, calling Mueller an angel and saying she represented the best of humanity.
Mueller's brother, Eric Mueller, encouraged the crowd to live as his first friend, best friend and sister did by reaching out to those who are suffering and give them a hug. His father, Carl Mueller, stood up immediately after his son finished speaking and hugged him tightly at the bottom of the stage.
"May God keep you from any more harm, any more hurt," Eric Mueller said to his sister. "You are in his hands now. You do not have to suffer anymore. Only now will you be able to see how much you really did and truly did for this world by looking down on it from above."
Mueller's parents did not speak to reporters, but they mingled afterward and embraced friends.
Mueller's friends set up tables to accept canned goods and money for the needy, saying that's what Mueller would have wanted.
"She was a saint," said Rebecca Dunn, who attended high school with Mueller in Prescott. "I'm hoping someone can take on her legacy. There was nothing she couldn't do."
Churches and community groups in Mueller's hometown of Prescott, the former territorial capital of Arizona, organized the candlelight memorial. As it opened, a live band sang "He Who Began A Good Work in You," a song that Mueller's mother, Marsha, used to sing to her as a child.
Mueller's family sat in the front row, clasping hands and wiping tears from their eyes. In the crowd, people raised their hands, closed their eyes and sang along.
Pastor Ron Merrell said he was hopeful the community that gathered would give hope and love to Mueller's family, and bring light into darkness — "something that Kayla Mueller was good at."
From Prescott, Mueller helped raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, and she volunteered for the overnight shift at a women's shelter. She protested genocide in Darfur while she attended Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She also traveled to the Palestinian territories, Israel, India and France.
Kathleen Day, a campus minister at the university, recalled the time when Mueller taught anger-management skills to women in the county jail. She said Mueller was learning and teaching about how to experience God in the midst of prison well before she was held captive for 18 months in Syria.
Day asked the crowd to also pray for others held hostage by the Islamic State group.
Little is known about Mueller's time in captivity or how she died, and Day said that's fine with her.
"It's really about what's next and what's before us," she said in an interview. "I'm sure our government will be trying to come to those conclusions. It's all going to be speculation. There's probably no way for us to ever have fully the truth."
As candles in the crowd were being lit one by one and the choir from Mueller's high school sang of being guided by God's ways and in his time, Carl Mueller lifted his candle toward the sky. Others in the crowd followed his lead.