Georgia nursing student's death puts spotlight on female runner safety

The death of a 22-year-old nursing student in Georgia who was killed while out for a run has turned a spotlight, once again, on the dangers women face while running outdoors.

Laken Hope Riley, a junior at the Augusta University College of Nursing, who studied at its Athens campus, was found in a wooded area on the University of Georgia's Athens campus on Feb. 22 with "visible injuries," the university said. She died from blunt force trauma, according to University of Georgia Police Chief Jeffrey Clark.

A suspect in her death, 26-year-old Jose Antonio Ibarra, has been charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, obstructing an emergency call and concealing the death of another. He was denied bond during an initial court appearance on Saturday and is being held at the Clarke County Jail.

Police do not believe Ibarra knew the victim and do not have a motive, according to Clark.

PHOTO: Aerial view of the crime scene on the University of Georgia campus, Athens, GA, Feb. 24, 2024. (ABC News/WSB)
PHOTO: Aerial view of the crime scene on the University of Georgia campus, Athens, GA, Feb. 24, 2024. (ABC News/WSB)

A friend reported Riley missing shortly after noon on Feb. 22, when she failed to return home from a run at the school's intramural fields earlier that morning, the university said.

University police officers subsequently found her behind a lake near the fields "unconscious and not breathing," the university said. Officers attempted to provide medical aid but she was pronounced dead at the scene.

The dangers of jogging while female

Riley's death is the latest in a string of incidents in which women have been killed while running outside.

PHOTO: Laken Hope Riley in an undated image provided by Augusta University, Feb. 23, 2024.  (AP)
PHOTO: Laken Hope Riley in an undated image provided by Augusta University, Feb. 23, 2024. (AP)

Less than two years ago, in September 2022, Eliza "Liza" Fletcher, a 34-year-old teacher and mother of two, was abducted and killed while on an early morning run in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, police said.

Fletcher's death quickly drew comparisons to the deaths of at least six other women in recent years, each of whom were also killed while running in their city or neighborhood streets, including Sydney Sutherland, 25, whose body was discovered two days after she disappeared after going for a run in Jackson County, Arkansas; Mollie Tibbetts, who was found stabbed to death after going for a run near her Iowa home; Wendy Martinez, who was stabbed to death while jogging in a busy, well-lit area of Washington, D.C.; Karina Vetrano, who was found dead after going on an evening jog near her New York home; Vanessa Marcotte, who was killed as she was out jogging in broad daylight in Massachusetts; and Ally Brueger, who was shot in the back while running in Michigan.

In 2018, another athlete, a 22-year-old collegiate golf player, was killed while she was golfing alone on a course in Ames, Iowa.

MORE: Women speak out about safety while running after death of Memphis jogger

Each of the deaths sparked fears among female runners in particular, who took to social media to share their concerns.

"People ask me how I feel safe running alone, and the answer is that I don't," one TikTok user posted after Riley's death.

"Runners of all genders, races, ages and backgrounds need to unite and show up for one another and DEMAND MORE," another female runner wrote on TikTok, adding of Riley, "All she did was go for a run."

After Fletcher's death in 2022, women shared their frustrations about the dangers they face while exercising outdoors using the hashtag #ElizaFletcher.

"WE ARE SICK & TIRED OF HAVING TO WATCH OUT FOR MEN JUST BECAUSE WE BREATHE. Carry keys to stab someone, carry tasers, stun guns, mace, bear spray, loud alarms. Knowing self-defense, becoming a gun owner, never going anywhere alone. HOW ABOUT MEN DO BETTER," wrote one woman on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"Women runners worry most about 2 things before a run-whether they'll be abducted/assaulted/murdered or if they'll be subjected to cat calls and being sexualized. Men worry about whether they should poop before or after their run. We are not the same," wrote another.

Tips from self-defense experts

The string of incidents has prompted some women to take control of their own safety by signing up for self-defense classes.

A 2017 survey by Runner's World magazine found more than half of women who run said they are concerned that they could be physically assaulted or receive unwanted physical contact during a run.

"I feel vulnerable walking. I feel vulnerable even in the car," Georgianna Chang, who signed up for a self-defense class, told ABC News' Faith Abubey. "It's sadly not until you're in that situation that you realize, 'Oh, I'm not equipped for this.'"

Nelson Nio, the founder of SHIELD Women's Self Defense System, told Abubey that a person fighting back during an attack should focus on the center of the attacker's body.

"Imagine three red buttons -- the eyes and the nose, the throat and the groin," Nio said. "If you hit someone, you always hit the center."

MORE: Arkansas woman killed while running: What women should know to stay safe on outdoor runs

Nio and other self-defense experts also stress that people should be aware of their surroundings at all times, which includes either avoiding wearing headphones or listening to them at a very low volume to be able to hear what is around them.

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, public speaker and health coach, told ABC News in 2018, after the deaths of Martinez and Tibbetts.

"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."

In addition, experts say it's best to exercise outdoors with a friend and to do so in an open and populated area. If an area 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.

"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 in order to scare away the attacker.

ABC News' Meredith Deliso contributed to this report.

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