Former UGA student's slaying prompts fierce national debate on immigration

A young woman's slaying at the University of Georgia last week while she was out on a run has shattered the local community and put a national spotlight on violent crimes and the nation's immigration policies.

Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, was reported missing by a roommate on Thursday after she didn't return from a morning run. She was found dead later in the day in a wooded area. Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, was arrested on murder and assault charges, and federal authorities said he entered the U.S. illegally in 2022 and was arrested at least once before.

In a court filing reviewed by USA TODAY, authorities accused Ibarra of dragging Riley somewhere secluded and killing her, using an object to commit the crime. The records also accused him of "disfiguring" Riley's skull.

The campus and surrounding community have been rocked by the death, turning attention toward enhancing security measures at UGA, while local runners think about their safety going forward.

Riley "showed incredible wisdom throughout her friendships ... she was the best listener," said Chloe Mullis, the chapter president of the sorority Riley belonged to, at a vigil on campus Monday.

Here's what we know about the case:

This undated image provided by Augusta University shows Laken Riley, a nursing student whose body was found Feb. 22, 2024, on the University of Georgia campus in Athens.
This undated image provided by Augusta University shows Laken Riley, a nursing student whose body was found Feb. 22, 2024, on the University of Georgia campus in Athens.

What happened to Laken Riley?

Riley was previously a University of Georgia student but was studying nursing at Augusta University’s Athens campus at the time of her death. A runner, she had gone out on a trail near the UGA intramural fields off College Station Road on Thursday morning. Her roommate reported her missing to campus police when she didn't return at around noon.

A search of the area led to the discovery of her body in a wooded area. She had "visible injuries" when she was found, authorities said.

The Athens-Clarke County coroner, Sonny Wilson, told USA TODAY that the preliminary cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma to the head. Officials haven't said exactly how she was killed.

In court documents, Ibarra was accused of "dragging the victim to a secluded area," "causing great bodily harm with an object," "disfiguring her skull," and preventing her from calling for help.

Riley didn't know her accused killer, officials have said.

Augusta University College of Nursing students attend a vigil on Monday for Laken Riley.
Augusta University College of Nursing students attend a vigil on Monday for Laken Riley.

What do we know about the murder suspect?

Ibarra lived in an apartment complex just south of where Riley's body was found, police said. Police identified him using video from campus security and other technology.

A citizen of Venezuela, Ibarra entered the U.S. in 2022 and was detained by authorities, who released him pending further immigration proceedings according to common practice at the time. It's unclear whether Ibarra has applied for asylum in the U.S.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, New York police charged Ibarra in August 2023 with a vehicle license violation and child endangerment. Ibarra had been driving a scooter without a license and had a child with him who was not wearing a helmet, The New York Times reported, citing a law enforcement official.

He was released by police there before ICE could file a detainer, federal officials said.

Ibarra was charged in Riley's death with murder, assault, battery, kidnapping, hindering Riley from calling 911 and concealment of a death, according to court records. Attorneys for Ibarra didn't respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY on Wednesday.

Authorities said they believe the crime was committed by Ibarra alone. His brother, Diego Ibarra, 29, was also arrested late last week and charged with possessing a fake green card, court records show.

Immigration debate focuses on slaying suspect

Riley's death has become a flashpoint for a heated and partisan debate over U.S. immigration policies. Georgia Republicans are blaming President Joe Biden for the suspect's presence in the country and Democrats are decrying the politicization of a tragedy.

Gov. Brian Kemp and former President Donald Trump have both laid the blame on the current president, accusing "failed policies" of allowing violent crime to persist in the country. Their claims tie unlawful immigration to an increase of violent crimes, despite studies that suggest native-born U.S. residents are more likely to be arrested for violent crimes than undocumented immigrants.

"The American people know exactly what happened," Kemp told Fox News. "This president ... did not (secure the border). ... Now we have a dead young woman because of it."

The White House, meanwhile, has said its condolences are with Riley's family. “People should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law if they are found to be guilty,” administration spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández said.

Contributing: The Athens Banner-Herald; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After former UGA student Laken Riley slain, immigration debate sparked