[Fox News] Laken Riley murder: Students on UGA campus, joggers nationwide shocked after alleged illegal immigrant killing

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The brutal murder of 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley on the University of Georgia campus last week has sparked concerns among other students and women joggers who run alone.

Riley, a student at Augusta University, was allegedly murdered by 26-year-old Jose Ibarra, an illegal immigrant from Venezuela, while she was jogging along dirt trails near Lake Herrick in Athens in what UGA Police described as a “crime of opportunity.”

“It’s a mother’s worst nightmare,” Michelle, the mother of a female UGA student and a UGA alumnus, previously told Fox News Digital.

Michelle said she’s told her daughter countless times to be careful when she walks alone and to only go running with her Labrador retriever.

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“It shakes people to their core because it makes people realize there’s a dirty underbelly we don’t see,” she said. “My heart breaks. I’ve been praying for [Riley’s] mom every time she comes to mind.”

Numerous women have taken to social media to share safety tips for solo female joggers and share their own stories of scary encounters while running. Sarah Lyoness, a Chicago-based runner who is training for a marathon, produced a video sharing jogger safety tips that went viral on TikTok.

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“I used to live in Omaha, Nebraska, and there was a trail … away from a lot of traffic. You could see cornfields for miles, and so it was pretty empty. And if I would go early in the morning, if I allowed myself to think about it too much, like, ‘Oh, someone could pop out of the cornfields or I could see a car following me’ I was just always aware of my surroundings,” she told Fox News Digital. She added that her mom eventually bought a bike to ride with her while she was running in that area.

Lyoness suggests other solo runners always carry a phone or smartwatch, be aware of their surroundings and have a safety weapon like pepper spray while out jogging.

“It takes the joy away from a sport that should be fun. … Every woman can relate to this story of living in fear just for being out there, unfortunately,” she said while explaining why she thinks her videos went viral.

Michael Arterburn, a former police officer, told Fox News Digital running in groups or in daylight isn’t feasible for some runners and shared tips for those who run alone.

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“Either wear no headphones or just wear one headphone. They made the bone conduction headphones now so that you can hear what’s going on around you if someone runs up behind you. You don’t want to take away one of your senses,” he said. “I recommend runner’s pepper gel. … It stays in your hand and instantly activates with just the flick of your thumb.”

The pepper gel sprays directly, unlike pepper spray, which can disperse into the air and impact the victim’s vision, as well as the perpetrator’s.

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Runners should also share their location on their phone with people they trust, he said. There is also a “smart pepper spray” that alerts contacts when it is activated, Arterburn said.

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UGA held a vigil for Riley and another student, Wyatt Banks, who died by suicide on campus just days before Riley was killed. Prior to Riley’s murder, the last on-campus homicide at UGA was about 30 years ago, according to the school’s police chief. 

“Let this be our calling: If you see something, say something,” Dabney Duncan, UGA Panhellenic Council president, said during the memorial. “That is the best way to honor these lives going forward.”

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Chloe Mullis, president of UGA’s Alpha Chi Omega chapter, where Riley was a member, described the 22-year-old as a “devoted Christian, sister, student, daughter and friend.”

“It is so obvious to me why it feels so dark right now, and it’s because we lost one of the brightest lights there’s ever been,” Mullis said. “This campus and our sisterhood will never be the same without Laken Riley.

“Whether it was nursing school, being the Alpha Chi banner chair or the incredible runner that she was, Laken showed devotion throughout every avenue of her life,” Mullis said. “She was devoted to making this world a better place, and we have no doubt she would have been an incredible nurse. It is earth-shattering that the world will never have that opportunity.”

Following the vigil, dozens of female UGA students walked in a single-file line to place roses at the Alpha Chi Omega house on the school’s campus. 

Riley’s murder has also brought renewed attention to the 2018 homicide of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, 20, who also vanished from a run before she was found dead. 

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Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 29, was convicted in her murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was living in the United States illegally from Mexico.

The UGA case has also highlighted Rachel Morin’s murder in Maryland. Morin, a 37-year-old mother of five, was found brutally killed last summer after she went for a jog along the Ma & Pa Trail in Bel Air, a popular pedestrian walkway she ran regularly. 

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The Harford County Sheriff’s Office is still searching for the suspect, described as a Hispanic male, in Morin’s murder. His DNA was tied to a home invasion in Los Angeles earlier in 2023.

In a lengthy statement regarding campus safety released Tuesday, UGA said it will be taking $7.5 million in new safety measures, including a permanent 20% increase to the UGA Police Department budget, plus “more security cameras and lighting upgrades as well as adding license plate readers and the installation of combined security camera-blue light call box systems in strategic locations across campus.” 

Additionally, a new ride-sharing program will offer a 50% discount on Lyft rides for UGA students between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Blue light boxes with cameras will be added throughout campus, the school added.

“Every day, the officers and supporting staff of the UGA Police Department devote themselves to protecting the campus community,” Clark said in a statement. “These additional funds will have a measurable impact on our safety efforts, supporting the excellent work of our dedicated police department team and our partners.”   

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John Phillips, Riley’s stepfather, thanked the public for its “overwhelming support” and donations to a GoFundMe page, “Laken Riley Memorial.”

“Laken was an amazing daughter, sister, friend and overall person in general. Her love for the Lord was exemplified in every aspect of her life. She will be missed every day, but we promise to honor her life moving forward in a very big way,” he said.

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