Saturday, April 13

Friends, classmates remember student found slain at UGA as neighbors describe suspect’s arrest


ATHENS, Georgia — Days after Laken Hope Riley was found dead on the University of Georgia campus, friends and classmates are remembering the 22-year-old as a kind young woman who “brought so many people together.”

Bianca Tiller, who roomed with Riley during their freshman year at UGA, said, “She was the sweetest, most pure-hearted young woman” who “brought so many people together and developed so many friendships.”

“I came into UGA knowing less than a handful of people and she brought me into her friend group, never let me feel left out,” Tiller said about Riley. “She made everyone smile and and is such a kind soul.”

Laken Riley, left, with Bianca Tiller, her former roommate during freshman year at the University of Georgia. Courtesy Bianca Tiller

“The great thing about Laken, everyone she met could instantly tell what a great heart she was,” Tiller added.

Tiller said her former roommate loved to run and kept track of her runs on her Apple Watch. Riley always shared her phone’s location with her friends, Tiller said.

Riley’s body was found with “visible injuries” in a forested area behind Lake Herrick on Thursday, police have said. She had gone out for a jog at the Intramural Fields that morning, and when she didn’t return hours later, her friend called the police.

Riley died of blunt force trauma.

The suspect, identified as Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, of Athens, 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 Friday.

There was no indication that Ibarra and Riley knew each other, according to UGA Police Chief Jeff Clark, who called it a “crime of opportunity” and said there was no further threat to the campus. Ibarra was being held in the Clarke County Jail.

Roommates, friends remember Riley as selfless, loving

Lilly Steiner, another friend from UGA, thanked Riley in a tribute posted Saturday on Instagram for “helping me find the joy in life.”

“You put everyone before yourself everyday, and you loved like no one else,” Sofia Magana, one of Riley’s roommates at UGA, said on Instagram.

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“You were supposed to be by my side on my wedding day, you were supposed to be with us on graduation … but most importantly you were supposed to be here with us,” Magana wrote.

Sophia Palomino said in a tribute post that Riley “taught me so many lessons about life, friendship & sisterhood” and said “her love has changed me for the better.” She added that she admired how Riley was always putting others before herself.

Connolly Huth, who also lived with Riley, recalled their shared memories and said she and Riley were supposed to run their first marathon together.

“I will run that 26.2 in your honor and let everyone know of the perfect, beautiful, hilarious, smart, kind, and driven human that Laken Riley was,” Huth wrote in an Instagram post.

Riley attended the University of Georgia through the spring 2023 semester and was studying at nearby Augusta University College of Nursing at the time of her death. In a statement, the school called her “a promising future nurse” who made the dean’s list in the fall.

A GoFundMe page was set up in Riley’s honor to help her family with funeral costs and with hopes of starting a scholarship in her name.

Flowers placed at a UGA campus memorial at Lake Herrick in Georgia.
Flowers placed at a UGA campus memorial at Lake Herrick in Georgia.Marissa Parra / NBC News

Community reeling from Riley’s death

On Saturday, security waited outside the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house, where Riley was still an active member, as students with flowers in their hands rushed to and from their cars, heads down and focused, wearing a grim look.

The tension on the campus Saturday was palpable.

One student clutched pepper spray as she crossed the street. She said up until this week, it was gathering dust in her car.

A small memorial grew by Lake Herrick, where Riley was last seen alive, as well as by the famed UGA arch. Students who never met Riley gave it a somber acknowledgement as they walked past.

“It’s really upsetting. I know that I love to run and so to know that that could’ve been me, that could’ve been anyone on this campus, it’s just terrible. It could be anybody,” UGA student Millicent Dye said.

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A quiet fear also lurks just off campus among a pocket of Venezuelans living in Athens.

From outside Andreina Rivas’ apartment in the same community as Ibarra, she described the shock and fear of seeing police swarming her street, only to find out it was because the suspect, whom she’d never met, was living just down the road from her.

Rivas threw her hands up in frustration, reenacting the moment she said she found out the suspect’s family was Venezuelan, like her. She added that in a group chat with other Venezuelans, some expressed fears that locals would “come after Venezuelans.”

Suspect’s brother also facing legal trouble

The suspect’s brother, Diego Ibarra, 29, was also taken into custody Friday and federally charged with possessing a fraudulent green card, according to a release from the United State’s Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Georgia.

Diego Ibarra is an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, the U.S. attorney’s office said. He was also being held in the Clarke County Jail. It was not immediately clear if he had retained legal representation.

He was approached by police Friday because he matched the description of the suspect in the investigation into Riley’s death, the U.S. attorney’s office said. He allegedly showed officers his fake green card as a form of identification.

Police determined the card to be fraudulent and charged Diego Ibarra. He is being held in state custody and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

A spokesperson for UGA said he was fired from his position at the university after they learned of the alleged fake green card.

“Diego Ibarra presented a fake green card to the hiring unit to begin a temporary position as a dishwasher in Bolton Dining Hall at the University of Georgia on Feb. 6, 2024,” the spokesperson said. “He subsequently failed to submit further documentation required to keep the job and was never paid by the University.”

He has been arrested three times since he came to the U.S. on non-violent offenses, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

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Jose Ibarra’s arrest has started a political firestorm within the conservative movement regarding immigration and border policy.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp demanded answers from President Joe Biden on Ibarra’s immigration status and asylum claims by his brother.

“Laken Riley’s tragic death struck the hearts of Georgians everywhere and has rightfully sparked national outrage,” Kemp said in a statement. “As I have said many times before: every state is now a border state because of Joe Biden’s inaction, and today I am again demanding answers and information from the Biden Administration that will help us protect our citizens when the federal government will not.”

Jose Ibarra is not a U.S. citizen, police said. His immigration status was not clear. A public defender who represented Ibarra at a bond hearing did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Sunday.

Suspect’s neighbors recall police swarming complex

Jennifer Slonaker and Ricky Carter, husband and wife, live in the Argo Apartment Community in Athens in one of the units above where Ibarra was living.

“We’d see him out and about. There wasn’t a lot of conversation because we think he spoke Spanish. Nothing out of the ordinary. They seemed normal enough, everyone in that apartment. Three men and a woman,” Slonaker said.

Around noon Friday, the couple said they saw police swarm the complex.

“There wasn’t an inch of this place that didn’t have a cop on it. … They knocked and search every door in this complex, but they started with the one downstairs. They knew what and who they were looking for,” Slonaker said.

The couple described seeing Ibarra walk away in handcuffs. He didn’t look around, remained quiet and focused ahead of him, they said. His brother Diego followed in handcuffs shortly thereafter.

Slonaker and her husband spoke to NBC News from outside their apartment, sharing details in between drags on a cigarette. Their regular smoke breaks are, in part, why they noticed the forensics team downstairs didn’t leave Ibarra’s apartment until 2:30 Saturday morning.

Carter looked around, almost hesitating to keep his voice from traveling downstairs for a moment.

“Makes me feel some type of way you can be amongst a killer and not even know it,” he said.

Marissa Parra reported from Athens, Georgia, and Rebecca Cohen from New York City.




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