Questions remain in investigation of death of Augusta University student found on UGA campus

Feb 26, 2024, 5:30 AM

Police tape drapes the crime scene on a trail behind Lake Herrick at the University of Georgia in A...

Police tape drapes the crime scene on a trail behind Lake Herrick at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Originally Published: 25 FEB 24 15:16 ET
Updated: 25 FEB 24 18:41 ET

(CNN) — As the investigation continues into the death of an Augusta University College of Nursing student on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Thursday, federal officials confirmed the immigration status of a suspect now in custody.

Augusta University junior Laken Hope Riley, 22, was found dead on Thursday near a lake on UGA’s campus after jogging nearby, authorities said.

The suspect, Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, of Athens, was charged in Riley’s killing with felony murder, false imprisonment, kidnapping and concealing the death of another and was denied bond Saturday morning, Athens-Clarke County jail records show. Authorities say there is no evidence Ibarra previously knew the victim and was not a student at UGA.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed Sunday Ibarra is a Venezuelan migrant who is not a United States citizen.

His brother, Diego Ibarra, 29, is in custody on federal charges of possessing a fraudulent green card and faces up to a decade in prison, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia.

Both brothers are undocumented. The immigration status of the suspect prompted requests from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to President Joe Biden “demanding information” related to Riley’s death as he criticized Biden’s immigration policies.

Vigil and funeral to be held for victim

Riley’s family announced a funeral service would be held for the late nursing student on Friday.

Riley’s Alpha Chi Omega sorority at UGA, where she attended college until spring of 2023, will host a vigil Monday in remembrance of the victim and another UGA student who died on campus last week, the university announced.

A GoFundMe campaign set up for Riley’s memorial and to establish a scholarship fund had received more than $100,000 in donations by Sunday afternoon.

“All proceeds going towards starting the Laken Hope Riley foundation which will be used to drive homicide awareness and safety for women,” according to the according to Poole Funeral Home.

Suspect was arrested in 2022 after unlawfully entering US, ICE says

The suspect in Riley’s killing was arrested in 2022 after entering the United States illegally, according to a statement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Ibarra entered the US near El Paso and was arrested by US Customs and Border Protection on Sept. 8, 2022, according to the statement from the agency.

“He was paroled and released for further processing,” ICE noted.

New York City police also arrested Ibarra last September and charged “with acting in a manner to injure a child less than 17 and a motor vehicle license violation,” according to ICE.

The NYPD released him “before a detainer could be issued,” the agency said.

When contacted about ICE’s statement about Ibarra’s arrest and release, New York’s office of the deputy commissioner of information said it did not have an arrest for Ibarra on record.

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations’ Atlanta Field Office has lodged a detainer against Ibarra following his arrest on Friday, the agency says.

Concerns raised regarding Ibarra’s immigration status

As the investigation into Riley’s death continued Sunday, Ibarra’s immigration status has become the focus of officials concerned about tightening border security.

Republican Gov. Kemp, who addressed a letter to Biden blasting his immigration’s immigration policies in the wake of Riley’s death, requested confirmation on Saturday of the suspect’s immigration status as well as any information available regarding the asylum claims and release of the suspect’s brother.

“Laken Riley’s tragic death struck the hearts of Georgians everywhere and has sparked national outrage,” Kemp said in a post on X. “Joe Biden’s failed policies have turned every state into a border state, and I’m demanding information from him so we can protect our people when the federal government won’t!”

The governor also wrote, “While media reports surrounding this case have relied on sources and leaks from your own federal agencies, the answers to these basic questions must be provided publicly as soon as possible.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson wrote on X on Saturday offering prayers to Riley’s family and called on Biden’s administration to use its “existing statutory authority and close the border.”

CNN has reached out to the White House for comment about Kemp’s letter and requests on Saturday.

Estranged wife describes suspect as ‘calm man’ while they were together

Jose Antonio Ibarra’s estranged wife, Layling Franco, said Ibarra was a “calm man” and treated her well while they were together.

Layling Franco told CNN via text on Sunday she hasn’t had any connection to Ibarra for months after separating from him, and she reacted “like anyone would in that situation” after learning someone she once lived with had been arrested as a suspect in connection with a death.

“I was shocked taking in everything that was being said about him,” she said, adding she would like to sit with him so he could explain “directly what happened.”

Franco said she knows nothing about the case and wants to stay out of it but expressed sympathy for the victim.

“Ultimately, what I want the most is justice” for Riley, she said.

When asked about Ibarra’s immigration status becoming a focal point of the case, Franco responded crimes are not tied to particular nationalities.

“We can’t put a nationality on a criminal. There are criminals all over the world,” she said.

UGA Latino student groups address ‘hate comments’ received following Riley’s death

Two student organizations involved with the UGA’s Latino community said they have received “hate comments” following Riley’s death, according to a joint statement posted on social media.

“In light of recent events, we find ourselves confronted with the painful reality of hatred and bigotry that has no place within our campus community,” UGA’s Hispanic Student Association and campus Latino mentoring organization LISTo said in the joint post on Instagram.

The university had more than 2,700 Hispanic students enrolled in 2022, according to UGA’s fact book.

“The hurtful and discriminatory comments made following the tragic loss of one of our own have deeply shaken us all. Such grief should not be made use for racism, hatred or xenophobia,” the post continued.

CNN’s Caroll Alvarado contributed to this report.

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Questions remain in investigation of death of Augusta University student found on UGA campus