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

Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officers search a dumpster across the street from the Cielo Azulak Apartments, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Athens, Ga. Police said Friday that they are questioning a “person of interest” in the death of a nursing student whose body was found on the University of Georgia campus after not returning from a run.(Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATHENS, Ga. — 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 an 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 found 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 mostly occupied by freshmen. Officials had advised students to travel in groups and avoid the area.

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