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What we know about Jose Antonio Ibarra, the man charged with murdering a Georgia nursing student

‘This was a crime of opportunity where he saw an individual, and bad things happened,’ the UGA police chief said of suspect Joe Antonio Ibarra

Kelly Rissman
Tuesday 27 February 2024 15:27 GMT
Jose Ibarra arrested for murder of Laken Riley

On the morning of 22 February, 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley set off on her regular morning jog around the University of Georgia campus. She never returned.

Her disappearance set off a desperate search to find her and bring her home safe – a search that came to a tragic end late that day when her beaten body was found along her running route.

Now, Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, is behind bars charged with Riley’s murder.

Mr Ibarra, who comes from Venezuela and is not a US citizen, has no known connection to the student and no known violent criminal history. Instead, police are describing Riley’s violent death as a “crime of opportunity”.

As the investigation continues, Mr Ibarra’s status as a non-US citizen has already sparked conflicting reports from law enforcement agencies about his criminal past on American soil – and has also spurred Republican lawmakers to seize on the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the hour to push offensive theories about migrants online.

Here’s what we do know so far about the murder suspect:

Who is Jose Antonio Ibarra?

ICE records show that Mr Ibarra is a 26-year-old Venezuelan migrant.

While the investigation into Riley’s death is still ongoing, UGA Police Chief Jeff Clark said that it appears to be a “solo act” and that the suspect and victim did not know each another prior to the alleged attack.

“This was a crime of opportunity where he saw an individual, and bad things happened,” Chief Clark said in a press conference.

Mr Ibarra appears to have first entered the US almost 18 months ago.

Back on 8 September 2022, Customs and Border Protection officials encountered Mr Ibarra after he crossed the US’s southern border with Mexico near El Paso, Texas, ICE officials told ABC7 in a statement.

He was “paroled and released for further processing”, officials said.

The agency also said that Mr Ibarra had been arrested by the New York Police Department on 14 September 2023 and was “charged with acting in a manner to injure a child less than 17 and a motor vehicle license violation”.

New York officials then released him “before a detainer could be issued,” ICE said.

However, the NYPD toldThe Independent that the department has no record of Mr Ibarra’s arrest on file – and so could not confirm whether this account was correct.

The Independent has also contacted ICE for more information.

Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, has been charged with malice murder and felony murder in connection with the death of Laken Riley (Clarke County Sheriff’s Office)

What charges is the suspect facing?

Athens-Clarke County jail records show that Mr Ibarra was charged on Friday 23 February with malice murder, felony murder, false imprisonment, kidnapping and other charges.

Newly filed affidavits unveiled gruesome details, accusing Ibarra of “disfiguring her skull” in support of the aggravated battery charge. The filing also claimed that Ibarra used an object to harm her and dragged her body to a “secluded area.”

He is being held in custody in Georgia where he was denied bail.

Following his arrest in Georgia, ICE also lodged a detainer on him.

Mr Ibarra’s brother Diego Jose Ibarra was also arrested for possessing a fraudulent green card, arrest records show.

Immigration status becomes a right-wing rallying cry

Riley’s murder – and the immigration status of the man charged with it – has become a rallying cry for some prominent Republicans to blame migrants for crime in America and blast the Biden administration for its handling of the situation at the southern border.

“Laken Riley’s tragic death struck the hearts of Georgians everywhere and has sparked national outrage,” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said in a post on X.

“Joe Biden’s failed policies have turned every state into a border state, and I’m demanding information from him so we can protect our people when the federal government won’t!”

After saying that Mr Ibarra illegally entered the country, Tennessee Sen Marsha Blackburn wrote: “The disastrous policies and negligence of the Biden administration is putting American lives at risk!”

Failed Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis also chimed in, reacting to ICE’s statement: “The combination of open borders and sanctuary and soft-on-crime policies is deadly. The illegal alien who murdered Laken Riley had recently been arrested in NY — and then released.”

“The brutal murderer who took the life of Laken was one of the millions of illegal aliens that the Biden Administration simply released and unleashed upon our country,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said on X. “The brutal murderer who took the life of Laken was one of the millions of illegal aliens that the Biden Administration simply released and unleashed upon our country.”

It is a widespread myth that those who migrate to the US are more likely to commit crimes — a recent study from the Pew Research Center revealed 57 per cent of Americans believe the large number of migrants seeking to enter the country leads to more crime.

But there is no evidence to suggest people who migrate to the US, including those who are undocumented, commit more crimes than those born in America. In fact, between 2012 and 2018, undocumented migrants in Texas were less than half as likely to commit violent crimes than those born in the US, according to a widely cited, peer-reviewed study from 2020.

As of Monday, President Joe Biden has yet to make a comment on Riley’s murder.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, Homeland Security Sec Alejandro Mayorkas was impeached by the House, accusing him of “willful and systemic refusal to comply with the law” by allowing the release of migrants awaiting legal proceedings and breaching “public trust” when he told lawmakers the southern border was secure.

What happened to Laken Riley?

The 22-year-old Augusta University College of Nursing student was reported missing on Thursday after she set off for a morning jog at the University of Georgia’s intramural fields.

When Riley failed to return home for several hours, her concerned roommate called the police around noon.

Less than 40 minutes later, search teams located Riley in an area behind Lake Herrick. She was unconscious, not breathing and with visible injuries, police said.

The Athens-Clarke County Coroner’s Office and Morgue said that a preliminary autopsy found she died from blunt force trauma to the head. Affidavits narrowed down the time frame of the incident to happening between 9am and 1pm on 22 February.

In a press conference on Thursday night, Chief Clark underscored the rarity of her killing, saying there had not been a homicide on campus in the last 20 years.

Laken Riley (Supplied)

The police chief vowed that “we’re not going to leave any rock unturned in this investigation”, as the campus police, Athens-Clarke County Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation work together in the case.

A GoFundMe page set up for Riley and her grieving family has garnered more than $118,000 in three days. The money will assist her family with funeral expenses, help establish a scholarship in her name, and raise homicide awareness, according to the fundraiser.

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