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Suspect in University of Georgia killing didn’t know victim and is not a student on the campus, police say

By Jamiel Lynch and Dalia Faheid, CNN

(CNN) — The suspect in the killing of an Augusta University College of Nursing student on the University of Georgia campus in Athens did not attend school at the campus and did not know the victim, authorities said Friday.

The killing of Laken Hope Riley, a junior on the dean’s list at Augusta University, appears to be a “crime of opportunity” by “an individual who woke up with bad intentions,” University of Georgia Police Chief Jeff Clark said at a Friday news conference.

Campus police said they are recommending charges against Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, of Athens, including felony murder, false imprisonment, kidnapping, and concealing the death of another in Riley’s killing.

Ibarra was denied bond Saturday morning, according to Clarke County jail records.

Riley was found dead near a lake at the University of Georgia’s campus Thursday after jogging in the area. The Athens-Clarke County Coroner identified the 22-year-old nursing student on Friday morning.

An examination on Friday revealed she died from blunt force trauma, Clark said at Friday’s news conference.

The police chief announced Ibarra was taken into custody on Friday. There were no indications of a continuing threat to the community related to the case, Clark said.

The evidence suggests the killing was “a solo act,” Clark said, adding authorities had taken several people into custody but are only arresting Ibarra.

“This was a very isolated incident,” Clark said at the Friday news conference. “We haven’t had a homicide at the University of Georgia in almost 30 years.”

Police have executed a search warrant at Ibarra’s apartment as they continue to collect evidence.

Campus security footage led police to suspect

Police used video footage from campus security cameras as well as key input from the community and physical evidence to tie the suspect to Riley’s killing, Clark said.

“Our work however, is not done,” Clark added, saying police are still collecting evidence and urging residents to call the department with pertinent information.

UGA earlier announced police had identified a person of interest who was being questioned amid an intense search for the student’s killer.

The suspect does not have an “extensive” criminal history, according to Clark. Ibarra is a resident of Athens, but not a US citizen or a student at UGA, he added. There was no evidence the two knew each other, according to Clark.

Ibarra’s brother was charged federally Friday night with possessing a fraudulent green card and is in state custody, according to a news release from the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia.

Diego Ibarra, 29, who is from Venezuela like his brother and is undocumented, is charged with possession of a fraudulent document and faces up to 10 years in prison, the release says.

An Athens-Clarke County police officer approached Diego Ibarra because he matched the description of the suspect being sought Friday, a federal affidavit says. He presented the officer with a green card that turned out to be fraudulent.

“We want to stress that this continues to be an active ongoing investigation,” university spokesperson Greg Trevor said.

The investigation unfolded after authorities got a call around noon Thursday from a friend who was concerned after Riley went jogging at the university’s intramural fields and never returned, authorities said Thursday evening.

Investigators found her body around 12:38 p.m. in an area behind a nearby lake, Clark said. According to police, Riley “was unconscious and not breathing, and had received visible injuries.” Officers immediately started rendering medical aid, but arriving emergency medical responders determined that she was dead, according to UGA.

All classes on the University of Georgia’s Athens campus were canceled Friday and will resume Monday, the school said.

Augusta University also canceled Friday classes at the College of Nursing campus in Athens, which is about 2.5 miles from the University of Georgia’s intramural fields.

‘It’s all going to be for you from now on’

In a statement on their Facebook page, the University of Augusta College of Nursing paid tribute to Riley, calling her a “promising future nurse” whose “compassion and care for others is evident.” Riley was set to graduate with a bachelor’s in nursing in 2025.

“She received her honorary white coat in August of 2023, symbolizing humanism, compassion, and the start of her nurse’s journey,” the university said. “Not only was she a bright and dedicated student, but she had the distinct honor of making the Fall 2023 Dean’s List.”

“The College of Nursing will miss Laken’s spirit on campus, and our hearts go out to her family and friends. We know that she would have been a wonderful nurse, and her passing is a loss for the profession and the communities she would have graciously served.”

Riley’s younger sister, Lauren Phillips, shared a tender message about her on Instagram Friday.

“The best sister and my built in best friend from the very first second,” she 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.”

Before her enrollment at Augusta University, Riley was a student at the University of Georgia until 2023, UGA spokesperson Cole Sosebee said.

The University of Georgia is now grieving two tragic deaths less than a day apart. Riley’s body was discovered mere hours after the death of a University of Georgia student the previous night.

“The past 24 hours have been a traumatic time for our university,” the school said Thursday. “And as we continue to mourn that tragic loss of life, today’s devastating news will uniquely test the resolve of our campus community, particularly our students.”

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CNN’s Rebekah Riess, Caroll Alvarado, Paradise Afshar and Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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