Laken Riley case: Two weeks after student’s slaying, unanswered questions

Police tape ropes off the crime scene on a trail behind Lake Herrick in Athens at the University of Georgia on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. A female nursing student was found dead nearby the day before. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Police tape ropes off the crime scene on a trail behind Lake Herrick in Athens at the University of Georgia on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. A female nursing student was found dead nearby the day before. (Jason Getz /

ATHENS — Two weeks have passed since Laken Riley went for a jog and didn’t return.

Visits to the wooded paths near the University of Georgia intramural fields where the 22-year-old nursing student’s body was found by police stir questions still without answers.

One big question: How could the brutal slaying have happened in daylight in an area typically with heavy foot traffic, and yet no evidence has emerged that anyone saw or heard it?

The homicide happened between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Feb. 22, according to Jose Antonio Ibarra’s arrest warrant. Police charged Ibarra on Feb. 23 with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call, and concealing Riley’s death.

Riley’s body was located amid 60 acres of woods dominated by oak trees nestled behind Lake Herrick. The woods abut the State Route 10 Loop, one of the most-used routes in Athens. So much routinely happens within half a mile of here.

The apartment complex where the accused killer lived is accessible by a path from the trails across railroad tracks. Nearby is the field where the Georgia Redcoat Marching Band practices. Courts where people regularly play tennis and pickleball. Fields for softball, soccer and frisbee. Parking lots routinely filled with cars. A bus stop for students to catch a ride deeper into campus.

A packed-gravel road, in some places wide enough for two lanes of cars to drive, carves through the woods. Dirt paths branch off between corridors of trees. Each trail typically has multiple forks, but every decision leads back to the gravel road, which wraps toward various access points around the intramural fields and Lake Herrick.

These tributaries often feature a twist or turn to what feels like isolation followed by a brisk return to more open space and a likely encounter with people.

The sign for Lake Herrick has been altered to memorialize Laken Riley, who was killed Feb. 22, 2024 on the running trails behind the lake last week in Athens, Georgia. This photo was taken Feb. 26.  (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll

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Credit: Nell Carroll

Within sight of the area that was marked off by crime scene tape after Riley’s death is a picnic table and a towering obstacle course structure maintained by UGA Recreation Sports. The trails are used by a wide spectrum of people. Serious runners. Walkers. People with dogs, others with children.

Despite heavy rain earlier this week creating muddy conditions, a man running zig-zagged through dirt paths on Thursday around 9 a.m. Not far away a man and woman casually strolled together along the gravel road.

“Laken did everything right that day,” UGA senior Yasmine Sabere said last week. “Her friends had her location. She was running on campus in a safe space and things like this still happen.”

Riley’s slaying has became the latest flashpoint in the heated national political debate over immigration. Authorities say Ibarra, a 26-year-old Venezuelan, entered the U.S. unlawfully in 2022.

Police have provided some details about what happened on Feb. 22.

Riley, an avid runner, was allegedly killed by Ibarra in a violent manner “with an object,” authorities said in Ibarra’s arrest warrant. Ibarra is accused of “disfiguring her skull” and dragging her to “a secluded area.” Police have not revealed the object and UGA Police chief Jeffrey L. Clark said there appeared to be no motive.

A friend of Riley’s contacted police when Riley didn’t return as expected. UGA police arrived at the trails at 12:17 p.m., according to a field case report. An officer said he found Riley’s body 21 minutes later, at 12:38 p.m., as he “was searching the woods along the trail.” The officer suspected foul play due to Riley’s physical appearance.

Athens resident Shedrick Crumbsy said he was on the trails that morning.

“There was a lot of people out here,” Crumbsy said while walking the trails last week.

No details were provided by UGA police when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked for clarification about the timeline of events and if eyewitnesses were interviewed.

“This is an active and on-going investigation,” said UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor. “We have no further comment.”

Police tape ropes off the crime scene on a trail behind Lake Herrick in Athens at the University of Georgia on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. A female nursing student was found dead nearby the day before. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz

icon to expand image

Credit: Jason Getz

Among the charges against Ibarra is hindering a 911 call. It is unclear if Riley attempted to call police or, if she did, if she successfully connected with law enforcement.

There is no record of a call matching the circumstances that day in the police call log. When asked to provide any audio if such a call took place, police declined, citing an exemption to state open records laws if audio depicts the distress or death of a caller.

Police confirmed no computer-aided dispatch report was created for a call but added no other details.

It’s also not clear what led police to Ibarra. Around 7 p.m. the night Riley’s body was discovered, UGA Police chief Clark said there was no suspect. By 10 a.m. the next morning, law enforcement appeared at the Cielo Azulyk apartment complex where Ibarra lived.

“Importantly, we were assisted by video footage from our campus security cameras network,” Clark told reporters the night of Ibarra’s arrest.

UGA declined to specify when asked via an open records request where cameras are located on campus, citing exemptions because their disclosure could compromise security. In the days after the killing, UGA committed more than $7.3 million to new safety measures, including emergency call boxes and more lights and cameras.

--Rosie Manins, Vanessa McCray, Charles Minshew and Jennifer Peebles contributed reporting.