Killing of nursing student out for a run underscores fears of solo female athletes

By Janie Har, The Associated Press

Carol Capps runs regularly in the forested area of the University of Georgia campus, where the body of a 22-year-old nursing student was found earlier this week after she was reported missing from a morning run.

Capps, 24, said the trails around Lake Herrick always seemed safe, a place where she could get away from traffic and go into the woods for some mental clarity.

But that sense of peace was shattered after authorities on Thursday found the body of Laken Hope Riley and arrested Athens resident Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, on suspicion of murder. The victim and suspect did not know each other, and University of Georgia Police Chief Jeff Clark called the killing a crime of opportunity.

“The scariest thing about it is it could have been me or one of my friends,” said Capps, a store associate at Athens Running Company. “It feels like a place has been taken away from me.”

Riley’s death has once again put the spotlight on the dangers female runners face. Previously, the 2018 death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts while out jogging prompted an outpouring from other women who shared their tales of being harassed and followed.

Crime statistics indicate that these types of attacks are rare, but they underscore the hypervigilance women must take when going out, even for a run on campus.

According to a survey by athletic wear company Adidas last year, 92% of women reported feeling concerned for their safety with half afraid of being physically attacked. More than a third of women said they experienced physical or verbal harassment, including sexist comments and being followed.

Running groups and women’s forums have offered tips on how women can try to stay safer while exercising: Run during daylight hours or with a friend; avoid headphones; carry pepper spray or a whistle; make sure your phone is charged; mix up running routes; inform a friend of your whereabouts and check in with them when you’re done.

But Callie Rennison, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Colorado who studies violence against women, wishes there was more emphasis on teaching men not to assault women rather than telling women what they should or should not do.

“I hope that women keep getting out there running, hiking, matriculating, climbing, working, and living their lives as they deserve,” Rennison said in an email. “While I lose hope on some days for us, what is the alternative? Trying to exist quietly doesn’t protect us either.”

Capps, who has been running since age 13, said she is careful to be aware of her surroundings. But she also does not think Riley could have done anything to ward off what appears to be a random act of violence.

“It’s unpreventable, I think, what happened to her,” she said.

Riley’s death has rattled more than just female runners, of course. Nate Stein, 23, a recent University of Georgia graduate who lives in downtown Athens, said he has run and walked in the area where her body was found.

Now, he plans to be more wary.

“It feels like a park — nothing bad should ever happen there,” he said.

Riley graduated in 2020 from River Ridge High School in Woodstock, a suburb northwest of Atlanta, where she ran cross country and was described as an outstanding scholar athlete.

On social media, women have dedicated their runs to Riley, expressed dismay that they still cannot go out without the fear of being attacked and said that they will keep on running.


AP reporters Jeff Martin and Ben Finley contributed to this report.

Janie Har, The Associated Press

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