Police arrest man in killing of nursing student at University of Georgia

Feb 23, 2024, 6:31 AM | Updated: 6:26 pm

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — A 26-year-old man was arrested Friday in the killing of a nursing student whose body was found on the University of Georgia campus, and police said he apparently did not know the victim, he acted alone and there was no further threat to the university community.

The suspect, identified as Athens resident Jose Antonio Ibarra, was taken into custody for the death of 22-year-old Laken Hope Riley, police said. The body of the Augusta University College of Nursing student was found near running trails Thursday, launching a highly visible police investigation that centered on an apartment complex just south of there.

Video from campus security and other technology led police to Ibarra, who lived in one of the apartments, University of Georgia Police Chief Jeff Clark said in a Friday evening news conference.

The evidence authorities have gathered in the case is robust, and they believe it was a “solo act” by Ibarra, according to Clark. He also said the investigation suggests that the suspect and victim had no relationship.

“This was a crime of opportunity where he saw an individual, and bad things happened,” Clark said.

Ibarra faces charges including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call and concealing the death of another, according to Clark. Authorities were taking him to Athens-Clarke County Jail.

It wasn’t immediately known if Ibarra had an attorney who could speak on his behalf. Clark said Ibarra doesn’t have an extensive criminal history and is not a U.S. citizen, but he did not know Ibarra’s immigration status.

Riley’s body was discovered Thursday afternoon after a friend told police she had not returned from a morning run, authorities said. Officers immediately began a search and found her body 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. Clark said Friday that the cause of death was blunt force trauma, but he did not elaborate.

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.”

Riley graduated in 2020 from River Ridge High School in Woodstock, a suburb northwest of Atlanta, where she ran cross country.

“Our community and our world lost a shining light with the tragic passing of Laken,” Cherokee County schools Superintendent Brian Hightower said in a statement. “An outstanding scholar athlete, Laken inspired classmates and teachers with her love of learning and her kindness to all. We ask that the community please keep her family in their hearts.”

The area where Riley was found is near the campus’ intramural fields, and only a little farther from a large dormitory complex occupied mostly by first-year students. Officials had advised students to travel in groups and avoid the area.

Police set up a mobile command post at an apartment complex nearby, with more than a dozen officers present. At one point, officers searched a dumpster at a gas station across the street.

First-year business major Paige Soskel, who was having coffee Friday with a friend in downtown Athens, said she was stunned to think that Riley was killed during the day.

“It was kind of just surreal to think that we have friends in the sorority that she was in,” Soskel said. “And just to think that it’s somebody that people we know actually know is just scary — that it could be anyone.”

She said she already tries to let others know where she is, including using an online tracking service. But now she’s considering further precautions, and her father sent her pepper spray.

Nate Stein, who graduated in December with a biomedical engineering degree, said he’s likely to be “on edge for a little bit.” His roommate is a frequent runner, and they often exercise in the area around the lake.

“I used to walk there every morning too, and I mean, it just feels like a very safe space,” Stein said. “It’s on campus so, like I said, it doesn’t really feel like it would ever be unsafe at all.”

The University of Georgia, which has 41,000 students, mostly in Athens, canceled classes Friday.

Augusta canceled classes at its Athens campus but said it would remain open as a gathering place for students, faculty and staff. However, the university’s campus in a strip mall appeared largely deserted in the afternoon, with an employee saying reporters were not being allowed inside.

Students at the University of Georgia were already shaken after a student was found dead in his dorm room Wednesday and an armed robbery took place in the center of campus the night of Feb. 16. University police said Thursday there was no reason to believe those incidents were connected to Riley’s death.

Murder is relatively rare in Athens with the city averaging six per year, about half Georgia’s statewide rate. But Athens-Clarke crime statistics show other types of crime with rates above the statewide average, including aggravated assault, burglary, rape and motor vehicle theft.

A similar killing in Tennessee in 2022 shocked people nationwide. Eliza Fletcher, 34, was abducted during a pre-dawn run near the University of Memphis, and her body was found days later. Cleotha Abston has pleaded not guilty to charges including first-degree murder and especially aggravated kidnapping.

A week later, thousands of people across the country “finished” Fletcher’s run in events honoring the mother of two and kindergarten teacher.


Amy reported from Atlanta.

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Police arrest man in killing of nursing student at University of Georgia