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Dad of nursing student who was found dead at University of Georgia speaks out for 1st time: ‘She was an angel’

The father of Laken Riley, a student at the University of Georgia who was killed while jogging, said he's "angry" her death has been used politically.
/ Source: TODAY

The father of Laken Riley, a Georgia nursing student killed while jogging on her college campus, is "angry" because he feels her death is being used "somewhat politically."

Jason Riley spoke out for the first time since his daughter's death in an exclusive interview with NBC News correspondent Priscilla Thompson on TODAY on March 18.

"She was like an angel," he said.

Laken Riley, 22, was found dead in a wooded area of the University of Georgia campus on Feb. 22.

Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, has been charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call and concealing the death of another, officials said.

Ibarra is a Venezuelan citizen who entered the U.S. illegally in 2022, officials said. Despite an arrest in New York and a citation for shoplifting in Georgia, he was never deported.

Riley's name has become a flashpoint in the partisan fight over border politics. President Joe Biden mentioned her death in his State of the Union address on March 7, and Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled at Biden to "say her name" during the speech.

"I feel like she’s being used somewhat politically," Jason Riley said. "It makes me angry. She was much better than that. She should be raised up for the person that she is."

Laken Riley, left, with Bianca Tiller, her former roommate during freshman year at University of Georgia.
Laken Riley, left, with Bianca Tiller, her former roommate during freshman year at University of Georgia.Courtesy Bianca Tiller

The investigation into Riley's death began after a person contacted police at 12:07 p.m. to say that a friend had not returned from a jog at the school’s Intramural Fields, university police said in a statement. Officers located the woman’s body at around 12:38 p.m. “in the forested area behind Lake Herrick.”

University of Georgia Chief of Police Jeff Clark told reporters on Feb. 23 that Riley died by blunt force trauma.

Ibarra does not appear to have known Riley, Clark said.

“At this time, the investigation suggests that they had no relationship,” Clark said. “(Jose Ibarra) did not know her at all. I think this was a crime of opportunity where he saw an individual and bad things happened.”

What do we know about Laken Hope Riley?

Augusta University President Brooks A. Keel said in a statement that Riley was a junior at the school's College of Nursing and a dean's list student.

"We were looking forward to seeing her graduate next year," her father said. "She was so full of life. I just hate that she was taken so early."

Augusta University's nursing school is located in Athens, the same city as the University of Georgia. The two schools are about 4 miles apart.

“She was the sweetest, most pure-hearted young woman” who “brought so many people together and developed so many friendships,” Bianca Tiller, who roomed with Riley during their freshman year at UGA, told NBC News.

After starting at UGA “knowing less than a handful of people,” Riley brought Tiller into her friendship group.

“She made everyone smile and and is such a kind soul,” Tiller said.

Riley was described as a “sweet and compassionate soul” in a GoFundMe, verified by NBC News, set up to cover funeral expenses and establish a scholarship in her name.

“No words can express the pain and heartache that Laken’s family and friends are experiencing. She was a wonderful friend, sister, daughter, etc. who touched the lives of everyone around her. Her infectious smile and contagious laugh lit up every room she entered,” the fundraising page states.

Lilly Steiner, a friend of Riley’s from UGA, thanked her in an Instagram tribute posted Feb. 24 for “helping me find the joy in life.”

One of Riley's roommates, Sofia Magana, said on Instagram that Riley was "the best friend, roommate, dog aunt (Titi Laken), dancer, banner chair, sister, hair curler, student, advice giver, and so much more."

“You were supposed to be by my side on my wedding day, you were supposed to be with us on graduation ... but most importantly you were supposed to be here with us,” Magana said.

What do we know about the suspect?

At a press conference in February, Clark said that it appeared the suspect in Riley’s death had acted alone.

Riley's father was asked if a difference in immigration policy would have mattered for his daughter.

"We have no idea if that would have changed anything, but I do know that he’s here illegally, that he might not have been here had had we had secure borders," Jason Riley said.

Clark said the university's police department and other law enforcement arrested Jose Ibarra based on extensive evidence, both physical and video from the campus security camera network.

As police searched Ibarra's home in Athens, Georgia, Clark said he did not believe they needed evidence inside the home to make a case. Ibarra remains booked at the Clarke County Jail on multiple charges.

The suspect’s brother, Diego Ibarra, 29, was also taken into custody Friday and federally charged with possessing a fraudulent green card, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia.

Diego Ibarra was approached by police because he matched the description of the suspect in Riley’s death, and he allegedly presented a fake green card for identification, the U.S. attorney's office said.

Diego Ibarra is an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, and he has been arrested three times on nonviolent offenses, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

A spokesperson for UGA said he was fired from a position at the university after they learned of the alleged fake green card.

“Diego Ibarra presented a fake green card to the hiring unit to begin a temporary position as a dishwasher in Bolton Dining Hall at the University of Georgia on Feb. 6, 2024,” the spokesperson said. “He subsequently failed to submit further documentation required to keep the job and was never paid by the University.”

What happened at UGA's Brumby Hall?

The discovery of Riley's body came one day after another student died suddenly in the school's Brumby Hall dormitory, UGA said, though police said the two incidents were not linked.

“The past 24 hours have been a traumatic time for our University,” the school said in a statement. “Our student body is grieving the sudden death of one student in Brumby Hall last night. 

“And as we continue to mourn that tragic loss of life, today’s devastating news will uniquely test the resolve of our campus community, particularly our students.”

What's next for the case?

Police said that the suspect acted alone.

“This was a very isolated incident. We haven’t had a homicide at the University of Georgia in 30 years," Clark added.

Ibarra has not yet entered a plea, but he is demanding a jury trial, according to court documents.

CORRECTION (Feb. 25, 2024, 12:24 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated Jose Antonio Ibarra's age. He is 26 years old, not 24.