Father of Laken Riley worries how slain daughter's death is "being used politically"

BUFORD, Ga. — The father of Laken Riley, a Georgia nursing student killed while she was jogging, is remembering her as a “strong person” who excelled in academics but fears her death is being exploited as a political wedge that has “incited people” for the November election.

While politicians have evoked her name at campaign rallies, in speeches and in an eponymous immigration-related bill, turning it into an election year flashpoint after she was killed, police say, by a suspect who entered the U.S. illegally two years ago, Jason Riley has taken the past month following her death to reflect.

"I wish I would have been there to protect her," he said in an interview that aired Monday on NBC's "TODAY" show — the first time he has spoken publicly since his daughter was killed. "I wish it would have been me."

Laken Riley's slaying has fueled the already heated debate over immigration policies during the Biden administration, and it drew further attention when President Joe Biden referred to her in an unscripted moment during his State of the Union address this month.

"I'd rather her not be such a political, how you say — it started a storm in our country," Jason Riley said of his daughter's death, "and it's incited a lot of people."

As a result of the divisiveness, he said, "there's people on both sides that have lashed out at our families," referring to him and Riley's mother.

While he and her mother divorced when Riley was young, he and his daughter remained close, calling each other often, he said. She spoke about wanting to graduate from Augusta University's nursing college and work at a children's hospital. She wrote down her goals for the year, which included going on a date after she had been such a "study bug," her father said.

Laken Riley in an undated family handout photo. (NBC News)
Laken Riley in an undated family handout photo. (NBC News)

She was so preoccupied with school, her sorority and church that the pair last spoke about two weeks before she died.

"It was really surreal. I just didn't want to believe it — it's still hard to believe," Jason Riley said of what happened, choking back tears. "I wake up every day thinking that I can call her, and I can't."

Adding to the difficulty of grieving is the national spotlight on her death, which only exploded following Biden's State of the Union address.

Halfway into Biden's speech, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., goaded him from the gallery to "say her name," prompting Biden to hold up a pin Greene had given him earlier with "Laken Riley" on it.

Biden said her name, although he appeared to mispronounce it as "Lincoln Riley," describing her as "an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal" — a term that drew criticism from immigration advocates who recognize it as dehumanizing language. (Biden told MSNBC he regrets having used the word.)

"My heart goes out to you," Biden told Riley's family during his speech. "Having lost children myself, I understand."

But in reaction to what Biden said, Jason Riley feels overwhelmed over how politicized the circumstances surrounding his daughter's death have become.

"I think it's being used politically to get those votes," Jason Riley said. "It makes me angry. I feel like, you know, they're just using my daughter’s name for that. And she was much better than that, and she should be raised up for the person that she is. She was an angel.”

Jason Riley said he does support former President Donald Trump and that while he prefers his daughter's death "not be so political," it has opened up necessary discussions about how best to secure the southern border and help women, including those who are victims of human trafficking.

"Laken has been a rallying cry for secure borders and for the illegal immigration policies of this current administration, but there's many women we don't get to hear about," he said.

On the day of Biden's State of the Union address, a bill in honor of Riley’s daughter authored by Rep. Mike Collins, R-Ga., passed the GOP-led House with 37 Democrats supporting it. If it is signed into law, the Laken Riley Act would require U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take into custody undocumented immigrants who commit theft-related crimes, such as shoplifting, and allow state attorneys general to sue to prevent the U.S. homeland security secretary from taking immigration action when perceived "policy failures" harm the state or its citizens.

Some Democrats have accused Republicans of specifically using Riley's death to score political points.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., called the House bill "smoke and mirrors" created by Republicans and urged that "rather than demagoguing this tragic death by this young woman, they ought to get serious."

Trump, who met with Riley's mother, Allyson Phillips, and stepfather before a campaign rally in Georgia this month, has blamed Biden's policies for contributing to her death as a record high number of migrants have crossed the southern border.

Laken Riley in an undated family handout photo. (NBC News)
Laken Riley in an undated family handout photo. (NBC News)

Phillips has declined media requests while the police investigation continues. In a Facebook comment posted in response to Biden’s speech, she wrote it was "pathetic" that "Biden does not even KNOW my child's name."

The suspect, a Venezuelan citizen named Jose Antonio Ibarra, entered the U.S. illegally in 2022 near El Paso, Texas, immigration officials said. Last summer, police in New York charged him with acting in a manner to injure a child less than 17 and a motor vehicle license violation. He was released before immigration authorities could ask police to hold him.

In October, Ibarra and his brother, who was also in the country illegally, were issued citations for shoplifting from a Walmart in Athens, Georgia, police said. Ibarra had failed to appear in court on a bench warrant. He was living in an apartment in Athens less than a mile from the University of Georgia campus.

Riley, 22, was reported missing Feb. 22, when, a friend said, she went for a run at the college's intramural fields that morning and never returned. She was an experienced runner, having competed in high school and run marathons, and her father said she would typically work out with friends.

But on that day she went alone. Her body was found in some woods on campus, and police said she suffered "visible injuries" and died of blunt force trauma.

Ibarra was named as a suspect the next day after, investigators said, they had connected him to security video, according to a federal affidavit obtained by The Associated Press. Police have found no specific motive for the attack, which they described as a "crime of opportunity."

Ibarra remains booked in the Clarke County Jail on several charges, including malice murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, kidnapping and concealing the death of another.

Jason Riley said his daughter's killing shows that people crossing into the U.S. are not being properly vetted, although he is unsure whether that would have made a difference in her case.

"I understand them wanting to come here for a better life," he said of migrants, "but when you have gang members and people who can commit violent crimes, especially against women, I think we can stop some of that."

While Trump's campaign rhetoric has sought to connect migrants with a surge of criminal activity, expert analysis and available data from major-city police departments show that despite several high-profile incidents, there is no evidence of a migrant-driven crime wave.

The apparently random attack on the University of Georgia campus led to demands from the community for security upgrades. The school said it would commit more than $7 million to new safety initiatives, including additional police and emergency call boxes.

Jason Riley said he has avoided news coverage of his daughter's death and details of the case, preferring instead to remember her life.

Despite her name’s being brought up in a political context, he said, he would rather think about how others remembered her at her funeral, where hundreds showed up to pay their respects. Her mother's family is also establishing a scholarship fund and a foundation to raise awareness of homicides and safety for young women.

"She was only 22. She had a lot of life left to give to the world," Jason Riley said.

"If everybody could live like Laken," he added, "it would make the world a better place."

Priscilla Thompson and Rebecca Byrd reported from Buford and Erik Ortiz from New York.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com