Athens elections shape up as referendum on crime after Laken Riley slaying

Immigration status of alleged killer also a topic ahead of May 21 local vote.
Residents gathered at a “Make Athens Safe Again” rally at City Hall in Athens on Tuesday March 5, 2024 in the wake of nursing student Laken Riley's slaying on the campus of the University of Georgia.  (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll

Credit: Nell Carroll

Residents gathered at a “Make Athens Safe Again” rally at City Hall in Athens on Tuesday March 5, 2024 in the wake of nursing student Laken Riley's slaying on the campus of the University of Georgia. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

ATHENS — In the days following Laken Riley’s killing in late February, political tension engulfed this city.

Angry demonstrators shouted down Mayor Kelly Girtz at a press conference. Gov. Brian Kemp and State Rep. Houston Gaines criticized local District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez during a visit to the University of Georgia campus. More than a hundred people attended a “Make Athens Safe Again” rally outside city hall.

Temperatures have cooled. Fewer than a dozen people showed up at a public town hall on crime and safety last month hosted by Gonzalez, Sheriff John Williams and Police Chief Jerry Saulters.

But debates over crime and immigration continue to percolate here, with local May 21 elections shaping up as a referendum on the progressive-leading leadership of consolidated Athens-Clarke County.

Athens became a national focus after Riley, a 22-year nursing student, was killed on UGA’s campus. Police arrested Jose Antonio Ibarra, a Venezuelan whom U.S. authorities say entered the country unlawfully, and charged him with murder.

Ibarra was indicted Tuesday on 10 charges, including aggravated assault with intent to rape and spying on a UGA staff member on the day Riley was killed.

Conservatives criticized Girtz and Gonzalez in February for allegedly being soft on crime and immigration enforcement. The county had the state’s fifth-highest crime rate in 2022, according to the most recent data from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, even though annual homicides have remained in single digits for more than a decade and local officials point to falling crime overall.

The death of 3-year-old Kyron Zarco Smith in an early March shooting, which police say was gang-related, stoked further calls for change in this county of 130,000 anchored by Athens and the state’s flagship public university.

Two conservative candidates are challenging two of the most progressive county commissioners. Williams, the sheriff, faces a challenge from a Democrat with conservative support.

The May vote also could be an early test of whether Democrat Gonzalez, who was pilloried by Republican state lawmakers before Riley’s killing, can weather a potential independent challenger when she is up for re-election in November. Gonzalez has tapped an outside prosecutor to handle the Riley case.

Sidney Waters, running for commission district 8, owns Mama Sid’s Pizza on the east side. Waters held a sign at the Girtz press conference in February that said “Resign NOW.” She is among critics of a 2019 resolution the county commission unanimously passed and Girtz signed in support of immigrants regardless of documentation status.

“We’re not a sanctuary city, but we have sanctuary policies that somewhat control us,” Waters said in March during an interview on the cable news show Fox & Friends First.

Carol Myers, the incumbent in district 8 elected in 2020, said during a recent candidate forum that resolutions are statements of value and carry no legal weight. “If I had been on the commission in 2019, I would have signed that resolution,” she added.

Girtz, mayor since 2018, has two years remaining in his term. Last month he petitioned the local Superior Court to suspend a recall effort against him. The effort is being led by James DePaola, who was removed from last month’s public safety forum for disruptive behavior.

Jason Jacobs, owner of downtown boutique Cheeky Peach and a former UGA and minor league baseball player, is running for commission district 2. He said during a recent candidate forum he didn’t think the 2019 resolution was good for Athens. He also has criticized local homelessness policies, which he says spend money inefficiently to address symptoms instead of causes.

Melissa Link, the incumbent in district 2, gave a speech during a commission meeting shortly after Riley’s killing that included comments on toxic masculinity, Donald Trump, school shootings and gun control.

“I am as disgusted by the crime (of killing Riley) as I am by the hysterical glee with which so many have seized on this tragedy to promote division, bigotry and hate,” she said.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter noted more yard signs in support of incumbents while recently driving through neighborhoods in districts 2 and 8.

Williams, who oversees the county jail, faces a challenge from Tommy Dorsey, a Clarke County School District police officer.

Williams faced criticism following Riley’s slaying for the jail’s policy on detaining undocumented immigrants. The policy, enacted by Williams’ predecessor Ira Edwards in 2018, allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take custody of a noncitizen before their release from jail, but does not detain anyone beyond their release date at ICE’s request, unless ordered by a judge.

Republican state senators passed a pair of bills last month, including House Bill 1105, that prohibit cities and counties from enacting immigration “sanctuary” policies allowing local officials to give safe harbor to people living in the country without legal permission. Kemp signed House Bill 1105 last week.

Williams said he will consult with the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, Homeland Security and ICE and follow state law. The Sheriff’s Office previously said in March said it would strengthen its record-keeping practices in future interactions with undocumented immigrants.

County officials defend their record on crime. Overall crime was down 2% in 2023 from the year before, including a 7% drop in violent crime, while arrests increased 16%, according to the county.

There isn’t much immigrant-specific crime data publicly available. Sheriff’s Office policy states if an arrestee can’t prove lawful status with documentation, a query will be sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The jail denied an open records request by the AJC for all queries made to Homeland Security since 2017, citing Georgia law regarding inmate privacy.

“We have an issue with fear of crime,” Saulters, the police chief, said last month at the public safety forum.

“When you have high-profile incidents, that’s what you’re going to have, an elevated sense that the community is not safe,” he added.

But the county’s 35.5 crimes per 1,000 people is much higher than the surrounding, more rural counties of Oconee (14.2), Madison (10.6) and Oglethorpe (11.5).

“I hear crime statistics are down, but frankly I don’t feel safer,” Jacobs said. “I don’t know how that reconciles.”