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Athens is shaken by the killing of a nursing student who was out on a run
Suspect from Venezuela charged with felony murder
Laken Hope Riley
Laken Hope Riley

ATHENS — The killing of a nursing student who was out running has shaken the university town of Athens.

Laken Hope Riley, 22, who was studying nursing at Augusta University, went out for a run Thursday morning. After a friend told police she had not returned, officers immediately began a search and found her body on the University of Georgia campus in a forested area near Lake Herrick that includes trails popular with runners and walkers.

Emergency medical responders determined she died before officers found her. University of Georgia Police Chief Jeff Clark said the cause of death was blunt force trauma, but he did not elaborate.

Jose Ibarra, 26, was taken into custody for the slaying of Riley on Friday, police said. Ibarra is not a U.S. citizen and is from Venezuela, but his immigration status is not yet known, said Clark, the university police chief.

Melissa Hodges, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said in an email Saturday that she did not have any additional information on the immigration status of Ibarra, who now faces charges that include murder and kidnapping.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Ibarra's immigration status on Saturday.

Local police said Friday that Ibarra, who lived in Athens, apparently did not know Riley and acted alone. Video from campus security and other technology led police to Ibarra, police said.

Ibarra appeared Saturday in court where he was formally charged with felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, kidnapping and other counts. He was represented by public defenders and remained in custody.

Some Republican politicians have seized on the arrest without knowing the suspect's immigration status to criticize the immigration policies of President Joe Biden.

In a letter addressed to Biden, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp wrote that the situation at the southern border “presents a clear and present danger to our citizens and communities.”

“While the dangers of this crisis have never been theoretical, this week our state witnessed a devastating tragedy,” Kemp wrote, referring to the killing of Riley.

Riley studied at the University of Georgia through the spring of 2023 before transferring to Augusta University’s College of Nursing, according to a statement from the University of Georgia, which does not have a nursing program itself. She remained active in the sorority she joined at the University of Georgia.

Riley’s sister, Lauren Phillips, paid tribute to her Friday in an Instagram post, calling her “the best sister and my built in best friend from the very first second.”

“This isn’t fair and I will never understand it but I know you are in heaven with the man you loved most right now,” Phillips wrote. “I’m not sure how I’m going to do this but it’s all going to be for you from now on. I cannot wait to give you the biggest hug someday. I will miss and love you forever Laken.”


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