University of Georgia campus tense, sad in wake of nursing student death

Funeral planned for Friday for Laken Riley, found off a hiking trail behind Lake Herrick.
The funeral for Laken Riley will be held Friday at Woodstock City Church.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

The funeral for Laken Riley will be held Friday at Woodstock City Church.

ATHENS — Under sunny skies and late, warm winter temperatures that often bring joy to University of Georgia students, many were still struggling Sunday to make sense of Thursday’s alleged murder of a 22-year-old nursing student on the campus.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that here,” said Angel Anaya, a graduate student from Mableton who calls Athens home now. “It’s very tough. I know people can be crazy, but that’s taking a human being.”

Anaya was leaving the UGA intramural fields, only a short distance from where Laken Riley, a student at Augusta University’s nursing program in Athens, was found dead Thursday. She had gone out for a run in the trails behind Lake Herrick, part of the vast intramural sports complex on the UGA campus.

Anaya and two friends had come Sunday to enjoy the warm weather, he said, and to de-stress. Anaya, who is studying to be a mental health counselor, said stress is huge on the campus now.

The alleged murder of Riley and the death of another UGA student in an unrelated incident Wednesday have darkened the mood, Anaya said.

Police arrested Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, on Friday and charged him with several counts including malice murder in Riley’s death. The suspect lives in Athens but is not a U.S. citizen. He has no known affiliation with the university and investigators do not believe Ibarra knew Riley.

Authorities said no foul play was suspected in the other student death.

Over on North campus, Juliana Robbins, a UGA junior who only recently transferred from Kennesaw State University, said she has enjoyed being on campus but that “It’s been a bad time overall, unfortunately.”

As a runner who knew her paths comfortably in Kennesaw, Robbins said she isn’t sure she’ll be jogging alone any time soon in Athens.

“It’s just weird and sad, especially as a woman,” Robbins said. “I feel like I’m walking on glass.”

Meanwhile, plans proceeded for a vigil on Monday for Riley and the other student who died last week. The other student’s name has not been released.

And funeral plans have been set for Riley.

Her obituary said that a love for nursing and helping others drove Riley to attend UGA and later the Augusta University nursing program in Athens, where she transferred and made the fall 2023 dean’s list. She remained an active member of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.

“Laken’s adoration for caring went beyond her goal of becoming a nurse but allowed her to be an extraordinary nanny for two young children,” her obituary stated. “Her smile was extremely infectious and infected others everywhere she went.”

Police charged Ibarra with murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call, and concealing the death of another. Immigration authorities said Sunday that Ibarra entered the U.S. unlawfully in 2022.

Visitation for Riley will be Friday from noon until 2 p.m. at Woodstock City Church, where she was very involved. Riley went on “countless” mission trips over the years, her obituary stated. The funeral will follow at 2 p.m. at the church, located on Ridgewalk Parkway. Poole Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

“Laken was an amazing daughter, sister, friend and overall person in general,” the obituary added. “Her love for the Lord was exemplified in every aspect of her life. She will be missed every day, but we promise to honor her life moving forward in a very big way.”

An online GoFundMe page was created to assist Riley’s family, which has requested donations instead of flowers. To honor her, all proceeds will go towards starting the Laken Hope Riley foundation, which will be used to bring homicide awareness and safety for women.

“The family would like to thank everyone for their kind gestures of love during this difficult time,” the obituary added.

The UGA chapters of Alpha Chi Omega and Kappa Sigma will host a vigil at 3 p.m. Monday at Tate Plaza. The campus is also mourning the loss of a freshman Kappa Sigma member, though foul play is not suspected in his death. The vigil is open to the campus community.

-Staff writers Alexis Stevens and Virginia Anderson contributed to this report.