Not guilty plea for suspect in killing of nursing student found on University of Georgia campus


ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — A man who entered the U.S. illegally and is accused of killing a nursing student whose body was found on the University of Georgia campus pleaded not guilty Friday to murder and other charges in her death.

A grand jury in early May returned an indictment charging Jose Ibarra, 26, with murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping and other crimes in the February killing of Laken Hope Riley. The 10-count indictment accuses Ibarra of hitting the 22-year-old Augusta University College of Nursing student in the head, asphyxiating her and pulling up her clothing with the intent to rape her.

Ibarra, dressed in a button-front shirt and dark slacks, was shackled and wearing a translation headset as he appeared in court alongside his lawyers, public defenders John Donnelly and Kaitlyn Beck. Several of Riley's family members were present for the hearing.

Athens-Clarke County Superior Court Judge H. Patrick Haggard said he hopes to hold a trial in the fall.

The killing immediately became a flashpoint in the national debate over immigration because Ibarra, who is from Venezuela, entered the U.S. illegally in 2022 and was allowed to stay to pursue his immigration case. 

Riley's death gave traction to a Georgia bill requiring jailers to check the immigration status of people in their custody and to apply to help enforce federal immigration laws. When he signed the bill, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said it “became one of our top priorities following the senseless death of Laken Riley at the hands of someone in this country illegally who had already been arrested even after crossing the border.”

Riley's body was found Feb. 22 near running trails after a friend told police she had not returned from a morning run, and police have said her killing appeared to be a random attack. Ibarra was arrested the next day and has been held in the Athens-Clarke County Jail without bond since then.

The indictment charges Ibarra with one count of malice murder, three counts of felony murder and one count each of kidnapping, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, hindering an emergency telephone call, tampering with evidence and peeping Tom.

The indictment says Ibarra concealed a jacket and gloves, leading to the evidence tampering charge. It also says that on the day of Riley's killing, Ibarra had peered into the window of an apartment in a university housing building, invading the privacy of a person whose name was redacted, which is the basis for the peeping Tom charge.