Laken Riley case: Demonstrators disrupt Athens mayor’s press conference

Kelly Girtz defends local officials’ actions in wake of nursing student death.
Around a dozen demonstrators were present as Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz spoke at a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. The demonstrators held signs that read “blood on your hands” and “justice for Laken. (Fletcher Page

Credit: Fletcher Page/AJC

Credit: Fletcher Page/AJC

Around a dozen demonstrators were present as Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz spoke at a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. The demonstrators held signs that read “blood on your hands” and “justice for Laken. (Fletcher Page

ATHENS — Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz defended local officials’ handling of crime and immigration enforcement in a contentious press conference Wednesday that was frequently interrupted by angry demonstrators.

For roughly 20 minutes, Girtz attempted to outline public safety investments and counter Republicans who have criticized immigration policies at the federal and local level in the wake of last Thursday’s death of nursing student Laken Hope Riley on the University of Georgia campus.

Athens has become the latest flashpoint in a heated national debate over migrants after local police arrested Jose Antonio Ibarra, a Venezuelan whom U.S. authorities say entered the country unlawfully, and charged him with murder in Riley’s death.

“Oftentimes people will wish to ascribe certain things to the Athens community, and I want you to have accurate information,” said Girtz at the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.

Around a dozen demonstrators were present. They held signs that read “blood on your hands” and “justice for Laken.” Some often shouted over Girtz as he tried to speak.

“I was a high school teacher for 22 years, and I got better behavior out of them,” Girtz said at one point, referring to the demonstrators.

“We are deeply sorry for this tragedy. Responsibility for this crime rests solely upon the perpetrator,” he added.

Former president Donald Trump, Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Republican representatives were among those critical of Democrats following Riley’s death last Thursday. Athens-Clarke County elected positions are non-partisan, but Girtz is a known progressive politician.

“The blood of Laken Riley is on the hands of Joe Biden, Alejandro Mayorkas, and the government of Athens-Clarke County,” Georgia Rep. Mike Collins (R-Jackson), whose district includes Athens, said last Friday.

Democrats have said Republicans are wrongly politicizing the death. They also have criticized GOP leaders for blocking a bipartisan U.S. Senate bill that would have made it harder for migrants to apply for asylum once they’ve entered the country illegally.

Unauthorized immigrants are less likely to be arrested for violent crimes than U.S.-born citizens, data has shown.

In Athens Clarke-County, with a population of roughly 130,000, murders have been in the single digits every year since 2009. 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. Before last week, UGA’s campus hadn’t seen a homicide since 1996.

On Wednesday, Girtz outlined more than $500,000 in public safety investments, including a real-time crime center and surveillance technology.

Athens Clarke-County Mayor Kelly Girtz responds Wednesday to Republicans who have criticized immigration during a press conference in Athens on Wednesday, February 28, 2024. Girtz addressed public safety and immigration in the wake of the University of Georgia campus death of Laken Hope Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student. Police last week charged Jose Antonio Ibarra, a Venezuelan national, with murder in Riley's death. (Fletcher Page /

Credit: Fletcher Page/AJC

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Credit: Fletcher Page/AJC

The mayor also pushed back on critics who call Athens a sanctuary city, where local officials provide safe harbor to people who are living in the country without legal permission.

“There’s been no legislation from this government that’s created a sanctuary city,” Girtz said.

As Girtz spoke, a woman chanted, “Liar. Liar. Liar.” At least three demonstrators yelled that the mayor should resign.

Georgia law restricts cities and counties from adopting a “sanctuary policy.” But some jurisdictions, such as Athens-Clarke County, limit coordination with immigration authorities more than others. Local authorities say they check the criminal history of detainees to hold anyone with outstanding warrants, but don’t keep unauthorized immigrants jailed if they have no criminal history.

“We center our work here in Athens-Clarke County on people’s humanity,” Girtz said. “Part of everybody’s humanity is the expectation of human dignity.”

Law-enforcement officers did not remove anybody from the room while Girtz spoke, but police asked Athens resident James Depaola several times to wait his turn to speak.

“We the people are tired of this lawlessness,” Depaola told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the press conference ended. “We are being put last.”

Ibarra, whom police have charged with murder in Riley’s homicide case, had a previous history with local law enforcement. In October of last year, Ibarra and his brother were issued citations after being accused of shoplifting, according to an Athens-Clarke County Police report. Local authorities said it’s standard procedure to give citations for certain misdemeanor offenses including shoplifting.

Although federal authorities have said Ibarra entered the U.S. unlawfully in 2022, they have not commented on his more recent immigration status, including whether he had been granted temporary residence or applied for asylum.

On Monday, State Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, introduced new legislation in the House that would require law-enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration laws. Another state bill would heighten penalties on sheriffs and jailers who do not cooperate with federal immigration agents when someone in custody is not a U.S. citizen.

Gaines on Monday questioned the ability of Deborah Gonzalez, the local district attorney, to prosecute Ibarra. Republicans have criticized Gonzalez, a Democrat elected in 2020, for her handling of high-profile cases, her decision not to prosecute certain low-level drug offenses and a mass departure of staff attorneys.

Gonzalez announced later Monday that she had tapped veteran prosecutor Sheila Ross to handle the murder case. Ross, as director of capital litigation at the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, has helped prosecutors statewide with complex murder and death penalty cases. She has experience prosecuting cases in the Athens area, including in 2021 in the slaying of Oconee County teenager Joseph Jackson. Three defendants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

“From day one, our office has worked diligently to keep this community safe from anyone who seeks to do it harm,” Gonzalez said in a statement.