What we know about Laken Riley's death at the U. of Georgia

When President Biden went off script during his State of the Union address and responded to a heckling lawmaker by saying, “An innocent young woman killed by an illegal. That's right.” – He was talking about Laken Riley.

The body of Ms. Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student at Augusta University, was found on Feb. 22 in a wooded area on the nearby campus of the University of Georgia in Athens.

After authorities announced the next day that they had charged an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, Jose Antonio Ibarra, with Ms. Riley's murder, the crime became a political flashpoint in Clarke County, a community about 70 miles east of Atlanta, and at the national level.

Authorities said the suspect and victim did not know each other. But many other questions remain unanswered about the murder, believed to be the first on the University of Georgia campus in nearly 30 years.

Here's what we know.

The victim

Ms. Riley was a student at the school until spring 2023. She then enrolled in the nursing program at Augusta University, which has a campus in Athens, school officials said. She was on Augusta's deanery list for fall 2023.

Bianca Tiller, Ms. Riley's freshman year roommate, said Ms. Riley “lit up every room she walked into and put a smile on everyone's face.”

Ms. Riley was a nursing student at Augusta University.Credit…Augusta University, via Associated Press

Ms. Riley was an experienced runner who competed in the Georgia High School Association state cross-country finals several times. Her former coach Keith Hooper said in a statement that Ms. Riley was “a selfless person.”

The suspect

According to University Police Chief Jeffrey Clark, Mr. Ibarra lived about a mile from the forest trail where Ms. Riley's body was found.

Mr. Ibarra immigrated from Venezuela, authorities said. According to federal officials, he was arrested by Border Patrol in September 2022 for illegally entering the United States and was quickly released into the country on a temporary residence permit.

Such releases, called parolees, were once common when officials were overwhelmed by large numbers of border crossers. The Biden administration ended the practice about six months after Mr. Ibarra's release.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, New York police arrested Mr. Ibarra in August 2023 and then released him. A police officer in New York City said Mr. Ibarra was riding a scooter without a license and with a child who was not wearing a helmet.

According to Athens-Clarke County police, Mr. Ibarra was arrested in Georgia in October in connection with a shoplifting case. Officials there said they searched Mr. Ibarra's name through state and national databases at the time but found no arrest warrant for him. He was released again.

After his arrest in the murder case, Mr. Ibarra was denied bail and remains in jail, authorities said.

The killing

A friend reported to University of Georgia campus police that Ms. Riley was missing after she failed to return from a run near the university's campus grounds, police said. Officers found her body in a wooded area near a lake.

According to the affidavits, Mr. Ibarra was accused of attacking Ms. Riley with an object and then dragging her body to the remote location where it was found.

Charges include murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, obstructing an emergency call and concealing the death of another, Chief Clark said. When asked about the motive, he replied: “It was just a crime of opportunity.”

Mr. Ibarra appeared to have acted alone, authorities said.

The politicians

Many conservative politicians, including Athens native Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, said the killing was related to President Biden's immigration policies. They claim that this policy has overwhelmed the country with more migrants than the system can handle.

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz, a Democrat, said the focus should be on mourning the victim and placing blame on an individual rather than a group.

“This murder was a violent, heinous act,” he said, “and it falls squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.”

More than six million Venezuelans have fled their troubled country in the last decade, the largest population displacement in Latin America's modern history.

The context

Mr. Girtz said that “no policies have been adopted by the mayor or commission that would have created sanctuary city status in Athens.”

Protected status, which can vary from place to place, is often understood to mean that state or local officials can limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities or refrain from questioning people about their immigration status.

In August 2019, Mr. Girtz passed a resolution “in support of the Athens immigrant, illegal and Latinx community,” stating that the Athens-Clarke County government “is committed to working to end the injustice caused by white supremacy “to make amends for the damage caused.”

The 2019 resolution did not include the word “sanctuary” or specify changes to how local law enforcement would work with federal immigration authorities.

Reporting by Richard Fausset, Chelsea Rose Marcius and Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon.