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Police Questioning ‘Person of Interest’ in Death of Georgia Nursing Student

February 23, 2024

ATHENS, Ga — Police said Friday that they are questioning a “person of interest” in the death of a nursing student whose body was found on the University of Georgia campus after not returning from a run.

Police identified the victim as 22-year-old Laken Hope Riley, a student at the Augusta University College of Nursing’s Athens campus.

“We’re not going to leave any rock unturned in this investigation,” said University of Georgia Police Chief Jeff Clark. He noted that there has not been a homicide on campus in the last 20 years.

Riley’s body was found Thursday afternoon after a friend told police she had not returned from a morning run, authorities said. She was unconscious and had “visible injuries” when officers found her, the University of Georgia Police Department said.

Officials have classified the death as a homicide and said they were checking security cameras and advising students to travel in groups and avoid the wooded area where her body was found. Friday, police had set up a mobile command post at an apartment complex just south of the wooded area, with more than a dozen officers present. At one point, officers searched a dumpster at a gas station across the street.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Athens-Clarke County Police Department joined the university police department in the investigation.

Riley had studied at the University of Georgia through the spring of 2023 before transferring to Augusta University’s College of Nursing, according to a statement from the University of Georgia, which does not have a nursing program itself. She remained active in the sorority she had joined at the University of Georgia.

This undated image provided by Augusta University shows Laken Hope Riley. Police said Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, that they are questioning a “person of interest” in the death of Riley, a nursing student whose body was found on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Ga., after not returning from a run. (Augusta University via AP)

Riley graduated in 2020 from River Ridge High School in Woodstock, a suburb northwest of Atlanta, where she ran cross country.

“Our community and our world lost a shining light with the tragic passing of Laken,” Cherokee County schools Superintendent Brian Hightower said in a statement. “An outstanding scholar athlete, Laken inspired classmates and teachers with her love of learning and her kindness to all. We ask that the community please keep her family in their hearts.”

The University of Georgia Police Department on Thursday at approximately 12:07 p.m. “received a call from a friend of Laken’s who was concerned that she had gone to run at the intramural fields earlier in the morning and had not returned as expected,” a police statement said.

Officers immediately began a search and found her body in a forested area near Lake Herrick that includes trails popular with runners and walkers. Emergency medical responders determined she had died before officers found her.

The area is close to the University of Georgia’s intramural fields, and only a little farther from a large dormitory complex mostly occupied by freshmen. The University of Georgia has 41,000 students, mostly in Athens, dominating Athens-Clarke County, which has about 129,000 residents in the consolidated city-county.

The University of Georgia canceled classes Friday. Augusta University canceled classes at its Athens campus but said it would remain open as a gathering place for students, faculty and staff. However, the Augusta University campus in a strip mall appeared largely deserted Friday afternoon, with an employee saying reporters were not being allowed inside.

Freshman business major Paige Soskel was having coffee Friday with fellow freshman Julia Lambert in downtown Athens, where some people were out enjoying sunny weather.

Soskel said she was stunned that Riley was killed during the day.

“It was kind of just surreal to think that we have friends in the sorority that she was in. And just to think that it’s somebody that people we know actually know is just scary — that it could be anyone.”

She said she already tries to let others know where she is, including using an online tracking service. But now she’s considering further precautions. Her father sent her pepper spray, she said.

Nate Stein, who graduated in December with a biomedical engineering degree said he’s likely to be “on edge for a little bit.” His roommate is a frequent runner and they often go to the area around the lake for exercise, he said.

“I used to walk there every morning too and I mean, it just feels like a very safe space,” Stein said “It’s on campus so, like I said, it doesn’t really feel like it would ever be unsafe at all.”

Students at the university were already shaken after a male student was found dead in his dorm room Wednesday and an armed robbery took place in the center of campus on the night of Feb. 16. University of Georgia police said Thursday there was no reason to believe the incidents were connected to Riley’s death.

Murder is relatively rare in Athens, with the city averaging 6 murders per year, a murder rate that’s about half Georgia’s statewide average. But Athens-Clarke crime statistics show other types of crime with rates above Georgia’s statewide average, including aggravated assault, burglary, rape and motor vehicle theft.

The University of Georgia has grown steadily, creating housing and gentrification pressures in a city where many nonstudent residents are less affluent. The university, in the meantime, has grown more elite as the state’s population has swelled. Georgia has a lottery-funded scholarship program that pays the full cost of tuition for more than 80% of University of Georgia students, making it an attractive destination for top in-state students.

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