Augusta University student killed while jogging at UGA is honored as suspect’s immigration status fuels debate

Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN | 2/26/2024, 9:16 a.m.
While mourners prepare for a vigil honoring a beloved student found dead on the University of Georgia campus, her suspected …
Laken Hope Riley was a nursing student at Augusta University. Mandatory Credit: Obtained by CNN via CNN Newsource

While mourners prepare for a vigil honoring a beloved student found dead on the University of Georgia campus, her suspected killer’s immigration status has renewed debate over immigration policies.

Laken Hope Riley, who was a nursing student at a nearby school and had been a UGA student until May 2023, was found dead Thursday after jogging near a lake on campus. The 22-year-old died from blunt force trauma, UGA Police Chief Jeff Clark said.

The suspect in her killing, Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, has since been charged with felony murder, false imprisonment and kidnapping and concealing the death of another, jail records show. Investigators said there is no evidence that Ibarra knew Riley.

Ibarra’s status as an undocumented Venezuelan migrant is now being touted by several state and national GOP leaders to support their calls for tighter border security – though there is little evidence indicating a connection between immigration and crime.

UGA is now grieving two recent deaths that occurred less than a day apart. Riley’s body was discovered just hours after the death of a UGA student the previous night.

The vigil, scheduled for Monday afternoon, will be co-hosted by Riley’s Alpha Chi Omega sorority at UGA in remembrance of both of the deceased students, the university said.

The deaths on the UGA campus are among the latest in a spate of recent tragedies on college campuses. Earlier this month, two people were killed at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. A student at the university was arrested and charged with murder.

And on Saturday in Kentucky, a Campbellsville University student was found dead in his room. A fellow student was arrested in connection with his death.

Riley’s killing was ‘crime of opportunity,’ police say

Police started searching for Riley after receiving a call around noon Thursday from a friend who was concerned she had not returned from her jog at UGA’s intramural fields that morning, Clark said. Less than an hour later, she was found dead.

Clark referred to Riley’s killing as a “crime of opportunity” and said he believes the suspect acted alone.

“This was a very isolated incident. We haven’t had a homicide at the University of Georgia in almost 30 years,” Clark said Friday. “This was an individual who woke up with bad intentions that day.”

Police connected Ibarra to Riley’s killing by using campus security camera footage, physical evidence and key input from the community, Clark said. Investigators have obtained a search warrant for Ibarra’s apartment and are still collecting evidence, and the police chief encouraged anyone with information about the case to come forward.

Suspect’s immigration status draws scrutiny

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed Sunday that Ibarra is a Venezuelan migrant who is not a US citizen, prompting outcries from several Republican politicians demanding stricter immigration policies at the US-Mexico border.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp shared a letter addressed to President Joe Biden on Saturday slamming his immigration policies and “demanding information” related to Ibarra’s immigration status.

“Laken Riley’s tragic death struck the hearts of Georgians everywhere and has sparked national outrage,” Kemp said in a post on X. “Joe Biden’s failed policies have turned every state into a border state, and I’m demanding information from him so we can protect our people when the federal government won’t!”

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson made similar comments on X, expressing his condolences to Riley’s family while urging Biden to “CLOSE THE BORDER!”

Governors near and far from the US southern border have been grappling with an influx of migrants, partly as a result of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott busing migrants to Democratic-led cities in protest of the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

In a recent Pew Research Center report about the US southern border, 57% of Americans said they believe the large number of migrants trying to enter the US leads to more crime – even though many researchers have found no such connection.

Ibarra was arrested in 2022 after entering the US illegally and was “paroled and released for further processing,” according to a statement from ICE.

He was also arrested last September by New York City police and charged with “acting in a manner to injure a child less than 17 and a motor vehicle license violation,” but police released him “before a detainer could be issued,” ICE said.

When contacted about ICE’s statement about Ibarra’s arrest and release, New York’s office of the deputy commissioner of information said it did not have a record of Ibarra’s arrest.

The suspect’s brother, Diego Ibarra, 29, was also arrested Friday on a federal charge of possessing a fraudulent green card and faces up to a decade in prison, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia.

A ‘promising future nurse’ lost

Riley’s loved ones at both UGA and the Augusta University College of Nursing are grieving her loss. She was remembered as a “promising future nurse” whose “compassion and care for others is evident,” the nursing college said.

Riley had just made the fall dean’s list and received her honorary white coat in August, “symbolizing humanism, compassion, and the start of her nurse’s journey,” the nursing college said in a statement on Facebook. She was set to graduate in 2025.

“The College of Nursing will miss Laken’s spirit on campus, and our hearts go out to her family and friends,” the statement said. “We know that she would have been a wonderful nurse, and her passing is a loss for the profession and the communities she would have graciously served.”

Riley’s younger sister, Lauren Phillips, memorialized her “best friend” in an Instagram post Friday.

“The best sister and my built in best friend from the very first second,” she 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.”

A GoFundMe campaign set up for Riley’s funeral expenses, to establish a scholarship fund and “raise homicide awareness” has received more than $100,000 in donations.

UGA Latino student groups say they’ve received ‘hate comments’

Two student organizations that serve UGA’s Latino community said they have received “hate comments” following Riley’s death and Ibarra’s arrest, according to a joint statement posted on social media.

The university had more than 2,700 Hispanic students enrolled in 2022, according to UGA’s fact book.

“In light of recent events, we find ourselves confronted with the painful reality of hatred and bigotry that has no place within our campus community,” UGA’s Hispanic Student Association and campus Latino mentoring organization LISTo said in a joint statement posted on Instagram.

“The hurtful and discriminatory comments made following the tragic loss of one of our own have deeply shaken us all. Such grief should not be made use for racism, hatred or xenophobia.”