Suspect charged in death of woman found slain on University of Georgia campus

ATHENS, Ga. — A man charged in the death of a college student whose body was found Thursday on the campus of the University of Georgia committed a “crime of opportunity,” officials said Friday.

University Police Chief Jeff Clark identified the suspect as Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, of Athens. Clark said the suspect is not a U.S. citizen and did not attend the university.

He said there was no indication that he knew 22-year-old Laken Hope Riley.

Ibarra has been charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call and concealing the death of another, police said. He will be booked into the Clarke County Jail.

The suspect does not have an extensive violent criminal history, Clark said, adding that he “can’t say he has done this multiple times.”

Clark described Riley’s killing as a “crime of opportunity, where he saw an individual and bad things happened,” and said the suspect is an “individual who woke up with bad intentions that day.” He said there is no motive.

The killing appears to have been a solo act, and there were no indications of a continuing threat to the community, Clark said.

Officials said that Riley, who was not a student at the University of Georgia but attended college at another institution in Athens, had gone for a jog and was later found dead with “visible injuries” in a forested area behind Lake Herrick on Thursday. Police said foul play was suspected, and on Friday, the case was called a homicide investigation.

Police said Friday that Riley’s cause of death was blunt force trauma.

Riley was a student at the Augusta University College of Nursing’s Athens campus, the school confirmed. Augusta University President Brooks A. Keel on Thursday called the news of the death “shocking to all of us.”

In a statement Friday, the university said Riley was a junior and a dean’s list student.

“This sudden loss of one of our students is truly heartbreaking,” the statement said, noting counseling support services are available for students, faculty and staff.

The University of Georgia said Friday that Riley had been a student through the 2023 spring semester before transferring to Augusta University.

In a message Thursday to the campus community, which includes more than 40,000 students, the University of Georgia called it a “terrible situation.”

The investigation

Police were on the scene at the Oconee Forest Park area of the Intramural Fields on campus Friday morning, the University of Georgia said.

Around noon Thursday, someone reported that their friend had gone for a run at the Intramural Fields that morning and did not return, police said.

The woman’s body was found behind Lake Herrick at 12:38 p.m., Clark said.

Police announced Friday that they had arrested a suspect in connection with Riley’s death.

Clark said police took “three or four” people into custody but are only arresting Ibarra, suggesting the “robust” evidence against him.

Police were executing a search warrant on Ibarra’s apartment Friday to continue to collect evidence, Clark said. Despite the warrant, he said police didn’t need any further evidence beyond what they had already gathered to arrest the suspect.

He said the arrest has been “supported by key input from the community, physical evidence and expert police work.” Video footage from the campus security system network was also vital in the investigation and eventual arrest, he said.

Safety concerns over the lake

Bridget Boswell, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Georgia, said Riley’s death made her feel “very sick to my stomach.”

The news comes amid an intense time at the state’s flagship university. In addition to the unrelated death of another student earlier in the week, midterms are underway.

Boswell described Lake Herrick as a haven for some on campus that is typically busy with students and locals.

“I feel like it could have been anybody,” Boswell said. “I felt so comfortable at that lake in the past. Like I had taken naps in my hammock alone, which I would never do that now. I had such a sense of trust.”

She said that she had been at the lake, where she often runs, Thursday morning.

“I’ll go at any time … and there will be people from other schools, cross country teams practicing, it’s not just college students. I’ve seen people just walking their dogs there, like older people, and people will go there to fish as well,” she said. “I’ve noticed there’s a lot of older guys that will be there alone and I never really thought twice about it, and now I’m thinking about it and that makes me a little uncomfortable.”

She suggested the university set up more emergency blue light phones as an added security measure.

“I don’t see them anymore,” Boswell said. “I honestly think that that would be a big help in the right direction.”

Michaela Gearty, a 22-year-old graduate student at UGA who also attended undergrad there, agreed that emergency call boxes should be reinstated. The school removed the emergency phone system in 2004 over a lack of use.

“There are no blue lights on the university campus anywhere,” she said. “They told us to download this app, UGA Safe app. But what they don’t realize is when you’re in a situation like that, talking about Laken, she was deep in the woods first off, and AT&T was out. So, what do you do there? There’s no blue light, no security, nothing.”

Greg Trevor, a spokesman for UGA, said the university had the blue boxes on campus for eight years. In that time, they were used only seven times.

In lieu of the blue boxes, Trevor said they developed the UGA Safe app, which includes a “Mobile BlueLight” feature that can call university police and share a caller’s location.

Gearty noted that AT&T had experienced a service outage Thursday that left thousands of users unable to use their phones without Wi-Fi for hours.

“This is all anyone’s talking about, and girls everywhere, including me and my roommates, we’ve been talking about this and strategizing on what to do being around here, being downtown, not going anywhere alone,” Gearty said.

“The day before this happened, I went for a walk on campus alone. Now, I can’t do that anymore, which is really unfortunate, and neither can anyone else,” she said.

Gearty said she never felt fully safe at the lake.

“There’s so many wooded areas and places where people can kind of come from nowhere, anyone can access it,” she said.

All classes were canceled Thursday evening and Friday, the university said. They will resume Monday.

Clark said that there are security cameras on the campus, which covers 760 acres in Athens.

He said Friday that the killing was a “very isolated incident,” noting that “we haven’t had a homicide at the University of Georgia in over 30 years.”

Blayne Alexander and Charlie Gile reported from Athens, Marlene Lenthang from Los Angeles and Rebecca Cohen from New York City.

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