How a Grad Student Murder Spotlights Female Joggers’ Safety Concerns

Laken Hope Riley, 22, was a nursing student. She had transferred to the College of Nursing at Augusta University’s campus in Athens from UGA. She had jogged along a trail near the Intramural Fields on the UGA campus. She was reported missing by a friend just after noon to UGA’s Police Department on February 22, 2024, after she didn’t return from her morning run.

UGA Police Chief Jeffrey L. Clark said in a press conference, “The victim was not a student of the University of Georgia, but the victim was a student of another school.”

Chief Clark said his investigators were reviewing all security cameras on campus in hopes of finding any clues. “We’re not going to leave any rock upturned,” the Chief said, adding that is why he brought in additional resources.

Laken Riley’s body was found in the woods behind Lake Herrick, which is located very close to the Intramural Fields off College Station Road and East Campus Road. The Augusta University College of Nursing campus in Athens is about 2.5 miles from the University of Georgia’s intramural fields.

The Athens-Clarke County Coroner’s Office reported that she died from blunt-force trauma to the head. Investigators scoured the wooded area on campus, trying to find clues as to who may have killed her.

UGA Campus Death: Foul Play Suspected (FOX5 Atlanta, February 23, 2024)

UGA Police Chief Jeff Clark described her killing as a “crime of opportunity” by “an individual who woke up with bad intentions.” According to Chief Clark, there was no evidence the two knew each other.

University officials issued a public statement: “We have been fully briefed on this terrible situation. Foul play is suspected, and we are already receiving support from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Athens-Clarke County Police Department to investigate this crime. We want to assure you that the safety and welfare of our campus community is our top concern.”

Suspect in Death of Augusta University Student Found on UGA Campus Taken Into Custody (CNN, February 24, 2024)

Jose Antonio Ibarra, a 26-year-old Venezuelan immigrant, was arrested for murder, kidnapping, and other charges in connection with her death. He is accused of kidnapping Laken Riley. He allegedly prevented her from making a 911 call, dragged her from the intramural fields to a secluded area, and concealed her death.

Ibarra entered the U.S. illegally in September 2022, according to Justice Department officials. Ibarra is a resident of Athens but not a U.S. citizen or a student at UGA.

Police say they used footage from campus security cameras as well as physical evidence to tie the suspect to Riley’s killing. They also executed a search warrant at the suspect’s apartment. The suspect does not have an “extensive” criminal history, according to Chief Clark.

UGA Faces New Calls for Campus Safety Measures After Nursing Student’s Death (NBC News)

University officials said the administration would meet with law enforcement to determine what else can be done, on top of moving ahead with improving outdoor lighting and security cameras around campus.

In addition, the university said it has invested $16 million in security protocols, including improving its network of security cameras, hiring more police, creating a nightly ride-share program, and launching its UGA Safe app, which has a mobile blue-light feature.

University of Georgia students say they’d like to see visible safety patrols, specifically at night, and the return of blue-light phone towers that would give them peace of mind.

UGA Safe App Features:

  • Chat with UGA Police: Users can initiate a chat session with the UGA Police when calling may not be possible. Easy to use phone links to call the UGA Police or Athens-Clarke County Police are also available.
  • Mobile BlueLight: Share your location and call the UGA police. Your location sharing stays on while you move so the police know your location. 
  • Friend Walk: Send your location in real time to a friend so they can watch as you walk to your destination. This feature works while riding/driving, too. 
  • Emergency Resources: Learn what to do in an emergency, how to share emergency information with 911, and where to shelter on campus. 

“It’s like it’s always there in the back of your mind,” one student said, clutching a key chain with her pepper spray and a whistle. “This happened in broad daylight on campus — somewhere that I go pretty frequently, too.”

Female Joggers: Crime of Opportunity

Eliza Fletcher, an avid runner, kindergarten teacher, and mother of two, was running near the University of Memphis when she disappeared. Her husband, Mr. Fletcher called the police around 7 a.m. when his wife had not returned home from her regular 4 a.m. jog. A nearby surveillance video camera showed a black GMC Terrain passing and waiting for her to run by. A man then exited the vehicle, ran toward Eliza, and forced her into the passenger’s seat. Investigators determined that Cleotha Abston was the man in the car after his DNA was found at the scene. His cell phone also placed him in the area at the time of her abduction. Abston, 38, was initially charged with kidnapping and tampering with evidence. First-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping were added after Eliza’s body was found.

Disturbing details emerge in the death of jogger Eliza Fletcher as the suspect is arraigned on murder (Minyvonne Burke & Nicole Duarte, NBC News)

Rachel Marin Murder Eerily Similar to High-Profile Cases of Female Joggers Killed by Strangers (Audrey Conklin, FOX News, August 11, 2023)

Rachel Morin, 37, a mother of five, disappeared while jogging on the Ma & Pa Pedestrian Trail around 6:30 p.m. in Bel Air, Maryland. Her boyfriend reported her missing around 11:20 p.m. The Harford County Sheriff’s Department began a search and discovered her body near the trail the next day.

Rachel frequently jogged along the Ma & Pa trail, which begins behind some businesses with decent foot traffic, including a brewery, a Domino’s, and condominiums. It then leads into a wooded area and through a neighborhood before it descends into more woods underneath the state highway.

“These cases are not out of the ordinary, and while you are always looking at individuals who are closest to the victim, you also have to keep your eyes open,” former Washington, D.C., homicide detective and Fox News contributor Ted Williams told Fox News Digital.

“This is one reason why women are told, if you’re going to be jogging alone early in the morning or late at night, to change their jogging pattern … because there are always, unfortunately, predators out here.” The sheriff added that investigators are starting by looking into the victim’s “inner circle” and working their way out, keeping in mind that Morin’s killing could have been a “random” act.

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Charlotte, North Carolina. A 15-year-old teenage girl was out jogging when a stranger exposed himself and sexually assaulted her on the McAlpine Creek Greenway. One neighbor who lives in the area said, “In the middle of the day, this is happening! What is with all this crime? Some joggers say they want to see things like call boxes or lights. Another resident in the area said, “I like seeing the police presence, I really do. It makes me feel safer.”

Park and Recreation officials say users are encouraged to walk with others, be aware of their surroundings, and keep the sound volume of personal audio devices at low levels.

Houston, Texas. A female jogger was on her morning run around 9:30 a.m. in a park. She was attacked by a stranger in broad daylight.

According to Detective Kristen Koryciak with the Houston Police Department, the victim, a woman in her 30s, noticed a man on a bench on the trail. The victim continued jogging for several yards when she noticed the man following after her.

The victim attempted to escape the suspect and run towards the main road but was unsuccessful.

“He grabbed her, at which point she began to actively fight back and attempts to get away,” Koryciak said. “The suspect then picked up the complainant, slammed her on the ground—consisting of concrete—causing her pain and abrasions.”

The suspect then is accused of threatening the woman’s life with a sharp weapon, and they went into an area where she was strangled and sexually assaulted.

Andy Kahan with Crime Stoppers said. “More than likely, it’s not his first dog and pony show doing something like this. It’s extremely bold and brazen. The fact he was out in broad daylight, in the middle of the day, middle of the morning, where anyone can actually stumble and see, tells me we have to get this guy off the street before anyone else has to pay the price for this.”

Fort Mill, South Carolina. A female jogger was attacked while on her 5:30 a.m. morning run. Sexual assault victim shares her story (WCNC Charlotte)

Boise, Idaho. Utah man arrested in attack and sexual assault of a Female Jogger. The victim told the Ada County Sheriff’s Office that she was jogging on her regular route at about 6:30 a.m. when a man came up behind her and grabbed her by the neck. The woman kicked her assailant and fought to get away, but he choked her until she lost consciousness, investigators say, then sexually assaulted her and left her lying in the street. The victim suffered multiple scrapes and other injuries in the attack. Another woman driving on Brogan Drive near Elinor Rose Avenue saw the injured woman on the road, stopped to help her, and called 911. The victim told police that she did not get a good look at the man’s face but was able to give descriptions of his clothes and body. The sheriff’s office says a combination of “comprehensive detective work” and DNA evidence helped narrow in on Campbell as the suspect. He was identified as a person of interest after the Ada County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by a neighboring agency about a different crime.

Buffalo, New York. A female jogging on the New York State Developmental Disabilities Services Office campus in West Seneca was attacked. She suffered from cuts and bruises during the assault. She was able to get away and escape into a DDSO officer’s patrol vehicle. Her attacker, Ryan Struck, 21, was captured, convicted, and sentenced to four years in prison.

Plymouth, Massachusetts. A female Jogger was stabbed and sexually assaulted by a town parks department worker. The attack happened at about 2 p.m. in Morton Park. The attacker sexually assaulted the victim and then stabbed her with pruning shears, police said. A Good Samaritan likely saved the woman’s life by interrupting the attack, allowing her time to escape, police said. The suspect also threatened the Good Samaritan as he fled the area. Plymouth police stressed it was an isolated incident.

“Morton Park is well-known as a very safe recreational area,” Plymouth Police Chief Michael Botieri said in a statement. “This appears to be a crime of opportunity, and all residents should feel safe when using the park.”

Jogger Sexually Assaulted at Knifepoint in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park (Robert Pozarycki, The Villager)

A 35-year-old female victim was jogging in the park near the Henry Hudson Parkway and Tryon Place. Her attacker grabbed her by the hair and dragged her behind a nearby tree, then punched her in the face. Police said he then displayed a knife and proceeded to violate the woman. According to authorities, he then took the victim’s watch and cell phone, valued at a combined $630, then ran away from her. Video camera footage shows the suspect on the electric scooter fleeing the area.

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Safety Tips for Female Joggers

Georgia Nursing Student’s Death Puts Spotlight on Female Runner Safety (Katie Kindeland, ABC News/GMA, February 26, 2024)

Women should be “alert but calm” when they’re out and about, scanning for red flags and not getting too deep into thought, Jennifer Cassetta, a Self-Defense Expert, says.

“When we’re being alert, our intuition is our inner GPS; it gives us signals and sends us messages,” Cassetta said. “If we’re too caught up in our to-do list or what we’re stressed about, we can’t hear it.”

Experts say it’s best to exercise outdoors with a friend and to do so in an open and populated area. If a site does not feel safe, experts say to trust your instinct and avoid the area.

Cassetta recommends women carry “non-lethal weapons” like pepper spray, a personal alarm, and a sharp object worn as a piece of jewelry—what she calls “weapon jewelry”—for protection.

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“They make you that much more aware because you’re holding onto it and aware of it,” she said. “But you need to make sure you know how to use them. If you have pepper spray, make sure you know how to use it and have it accessible.”

If all else fails, experts say to scream as loud as possible to scare away the attacker.

Carrboro, North Carolina. Jogger Sexually Assaulted; Bystander Calls 911 After Hearing Screams for Help

Carrboro Police said a man approached a female jogger from behind, threw her to the ground, and began sexually assaulting her. The assault occurred along a quiet stretch of road lined by apartment complexes and dotted with the occasional business area. It’s not an area that authorities have had to respond to very often.

A bystander heard the jogger screaming and called 911. The attacker fled on foot. The bystander went to the area and assisted the victim.

“It’s very scary to hear that, very scary,” the bystander said, “because I leave out at night to go to a store or something like that. I’m always watching my surroundings.”

Peoria, Arizona. Woman assaulted while jogging along the Skunk Creek Trail. The attacker grabbed her, threw her to the ground, and tried to assault her sexually. She fought back and managed to get away from the assailant. She called 911. The police were able to locate the suspect. He faced charges of sexual abuse, aggravated assault, and attempted sexual assault.

Knoxville, Tennessee. Jogger Escapes Kidnap and Rape Attempt from Registered Sex Officer.

A female jogger was assaulted by a man just after 7 a.m. She had been jogging near Market Square when the unknown man attacked her. Several bystanders came to help her, and she escaped with minor injuries. According to the Violent Crimes Unit Investigators, a 34-year-old man was located and apprehended around 10 a.m. the same day.

Knoxville Police Department Chief of Police Paul Noel said: “I am incredibly proud of the great urgency and teamwork our investigators and patrol officers showed to bring this incident to an almost immediate resolution.

“I am also thankful for the bystanders who jumped in to help when help was needed. People should feel and be safe in every public space in our city, and we will respond quickly to address any actions or behavior that compromises that sense of safety.”

Bethesda, Maryland. Female Jogger Assaulted. Her attacker grabbed her buttocks and breasts while she jogged on the Capital Crescent Trail at about 2:15 p.m. She pepper sprayed him and broke free of his grip. She immediately called 911. The Maryland-National Capital Park Police quickly located the suspect fleeing down the trail.

South El Monte, California. A woman jogging along a trail was sexually assaulted. The assault took place about 5:30 p.m. at the Whittier Narrows Recreation area. The female was going for a run on the trail when a suspect approached her from behind. He pulled her into some bushes and sexually assaulted her. The victim managed to fight the attacker off and escape. The suspect fled the scene on his bike.

A similar attack happened on the same night just 3 hours later. A man approached a woman jogging in Lake Balboa with a knife, robbed her of her cell phone, threw her into tall bushes, and told her, “If you scream, I’ll kill you,” according to Los Angeles Police. The victim feared she was going to be raped and fought back. The suspect kicked her several times, threw her over a fence, and fled the scene on a bike path.

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A Nursing Student’s Murder Puts the Spotlight on Female Joggers’ Safety Concerns