Laken Riley case: Suspect had been arrested by federal, local authorities

Special prosecutor named to handle case against Jose Antonio Ibarra in UGA campus death
Jose Antonio Ibarra was booked into the Clarke County Jail in the death of 22-year-old Laken Riley, who was running on the University of Georgia campus when she was killed, officials said.

Credit: Clarke County Sheriff's Office

Credit: Clarke County Sheriff's Office

Jose Antonio Ibarra was booked into the Clarke County Jail in the death of 22-year-old Laken Riley, who was running on the University of Georgia campus when she was killed, officials said.

The suspect charged in the death of nursing student Laken Hope Riley on the University of Georgia campus has been arrested by federal and local authorities in multiple jurisdictions since unlawfully entering the country in 2022, authorities said.

Jose Antonio Ibarra was arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection September 2022, after unlawfully entering the United States, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Sunday. The agency said that it lodged a detainer after its Enforcement and Removal Operations unit in Atlanta encountered Ibarra on Friday following his arrest on murder charges.

In October 2023, Ibarra, 26, and his brother Diego Jose Ibarra, 29, were issued citations after being accused of shoplifting and given information about a pre-arrest diversion program, according to an Athens-Clarke County Police report. Local authorities allege about $200 worth of clothing and food was stolen from a Walmart, records show. A bench warrant was issued for Jose Antonio Ibarra’s arrest on Dec. 20 after he failed to appear in court on that case, records show.

“A criminal history for the two were ran and both returned having no prior convictions for shoplifting,” an incident report said.

The Athens-Clarke County Police Department said it’s standard operating procedure to give citations for certain misdemeanor offenses including shoplifting.

“While we can’t speak about an ongoing investigation, it is consistent with practice that individuals charged with misdemeanor shoplifting and other misdemeanor offenses may be released on citation,” the department said.

The brothers, from Venezuela, had been separately apprehended by U.S. border patrol agents near El Paso, Texas, and released to New York pending adjudication of their asylum claims, authorities said.

The Athens Walmart incident occurred after Jose Antonio Ibarra was arrested in New York in September 2023 by the New York Police Department and charged with acting in a manner to injure a child less than 17 and a motor vehicle license violation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Sunday. He was released by the NYPD before a detainer could be issued, ICE said.

He was arrested in Athens by University of Georgia Police on Friday and charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call, and concealing the death of Riley, 22.

Riley’s body was found Thursday in a wooded area near UGA’s intramural fields after she went for a run. Investigators believe she died from blunt force trauma. Ibarra’s arrest warrant, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday, said he committed aggravated battery against Riley by “disfiguring her skull,” and concealed her death by “dragging the victim to a secluded area.” The crimes occurred between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Thursday, the warrant states.

Separately, Athens-Clarke District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez said late Monday she tapped veteran prosecutor Sheila Ross to handle the 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.

Republicans have criticized Gonzalez’s handling of high-profile cases, her decision not to prosecute certain low-level drug offenses and a mass departure of staff attorneys on her watch.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who often cites the Democrat when pressing a new law to reprimand “rogue” prosecutors, was asked earlier Monday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution if he was confident in Gonzalez’s ability to try the case against Ibarra.

“She’d best do that, I can tell you, because the whole country and the world is watching this case,” Kemp said. “So it’s my hope that she will do that, or perhaps seek some folks that will help her do that.”

Diego Ibarra was also arrested Friday and charged by federal prosecutors with possessing a fraudulent U.S. permanent resident card. UGA said Sunday that Diego Ibarra presented a fake green card to secure a temporary position as a dishwasher in a dining hall, but “failed to submit further documentation required to keep the job and was never paid by the University.” Diego Ibarra was fired; Jose Antonio Ibarra never worked at the university, UGA said.

In a statement to the AJC on Monday, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department said its officers don’t have immediate access to immigration status governed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The general process of identifying and removing non-citizens with criminal or pending criminal charges arrested by state and local law enforcement agencies is handled during the booking process by the law enforcement agency responsible for the jail,” the department said. “In our jurisdiction, that is the Clarke County Jail.”

A complaint in a Georgia federal court states that Diego Ibarra was apprehended by U.S. border patrol agents in late April 2023. He was processed for immediate removal from the United States, but claimed a credible fear of returning to Venezuela and was released to New York pending adjudication of his claim for asylum.

Venezuelans are given special immigration status by the Biden administration as millions flee political repression and poverty.

Diego Ibarra has not applied for or lawfully obtained a permanent resident card, the complaint states.

Reports from Athens-Clarke County Police indicate Diego Ibarra first came to the attention of local officers when he was arrested in late September. Police say he was driving 80 miles per hour in a 40-mph zone while under the influence of alcohol and without a license. He told the arresting officer he’d consumed seven beers, records show.

Two days later, Diego Ibarra was charged with criminal trespass stemming from a domestic incident, records show. In December, records show he was charged with shoplifting from the same Walmart a second time.

- Greg Bluestein, Jennifer Peebles and Charles Minshew contributed to this report.