On a rainy afternoon in Georgia, loved ones remember Laken Riley

A white Lincoln hearse waited in the cold rain outside the church on Friday afternoon as the people who loved Laken Hope Riley gathered inside to remember a life that ended too soon.

She should have been running, or singing, or walking to the Circle K with a friend to buy a Diet Coke, or studying on her iPad in her ongoing quest to become a nurse. Laken had chosen her path at an early age, in first grade or perhaps sooner.

At age 22, she was almost there. And then, one morning last week, she went out for a run and did not come home.

With her departure came sudden and unwanted fame. Many people who’d heard of her knew too little about her life and too much about her death and its furious aftermath. Those closest to her were understandably reluctant to give interviews.

The story had gathered its own momentum. It became less about who Laken was, and more about how she died, and who was accused of killing her, and why he shouldn’t have been in this country, and what the mayor had done, or failed to do; and what the governor wrote to the president, and what the president should have said or done, and how the former president would use her name in his campaign to become president again.

It was not wrong to ask why she died, or how her death might have been prevented, or how to save someone else from a similar fate. But these conversations could be loud, even ugly, and those two attributes had nothing to do with Laken’s memory.

Laken Hope Riley displays one of the medals she earned running. - Obtained by CNN
Laken Hope Riley displays one of the medals she earned running. - Obtained by CNN

Indeed, as her former cross-country coach thought of her, he imagined the opposite of those two things: tranquility and beauty.

“Distance runners are an odd group,” Keith Hooper wrote in an email. “We don’t care if it is raining, windy or cold, there is a workout to complete. People can find an excuse not to run, but a distance runner will embrace the elements and the associated challenges and tell themselves that they can do it. An early morning run may provide stunning sunrises, or a lunar halo, or perhaps you get to listen to the mating calls of the barred owl.

“This is beauty, and Laken was a beautiful person, passionate about her health care studies and an unselfish teammate. She will always be with us as we run.”

Like many twentysomethings, Laken documented her life on Instagram. She was dressed up for the prom, swimming in a lake in Colorado, cheering in the bleachers for her Georgia Bulldogs. In 2016 at St. Simons Island, she posted a sunset, along with a Bible verse: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In 2019, she commemorated a mission trip to Honduras by posting a picture of children and writing, “this past week God used me in ways I couldn’t even imagine.”

Almost nine weeks ago, on January 1, she posted a photo of herself, smiling and hoisting a drink on New Year’s Eve. Her caption said, “Here’s to 2024.”

And four days before her death, she posted snapshots with two girlfriends, captioned only “xoxo.” The post now has some 2,000 likes and more than 1,100 comments, ranging from “rest in peace” to political rants about the undocumented immigrant who is accused of killing her.

On Tuesday in Athens, near the place where Laken made her last run, a wooden sign stood on the shore of Lake Herrick. Someone had used black tape to change the word “Lake” to “Laken.” Bouquets of flowers lined the ground beneath the sign, their bright petals rippling in the late-winter wind. A few raindrops fell.

A makeshift memorial for Laken Riley is seen at Lake Herrick in Athens, Georgia, where she often went jogging. - Thomas Lake/CNN
A makeshift memorial for Laken Riley is seen at Lake Herrick in Athens, Georgia, where she often went jogging. - Thomas Lake/CNN

The path led to a forest, a steep hill rising from the shore, with young magnolias flourishing under a hardwood canopy. It was peaceful back here, and beautiful. The trail went on, deeper into this natural sanctuary. It was possible to imagine Laken back here, alone and undisturbed, anonymous and unharmed, running without fear.

But that was an alternate timeline, a path that did not exist. Now it was Friday, and it was cold and raining hard. A man walked out of the church in Woodstock and opened the door to the hearse. Other men followed, carrying a casket that was covered in white flowers.

“When the world loses someone like Laken, whose light consistently shined so bright, it seems that much darker in their absence,” the church’s lead pastor, Samer Massad, said in a written statement to the media.

“Laken was special,” he added. “She was a gift to anyone who knew her. Smart, kind, compassionate, and thoughtful don’t even begin to scratch the surface. She was a loving daughter, sister, and friend. She had a gift for making anyone she was around feel comfortable and seen.”

Reporters were not allowed to attend the service, and Laken’s loved ones were unavailable for interviews. Her friend and roommate Connolly Huth was likely somewhere in the funeral procession. What she posted on Instagram after Laken’s death is worth quoting at length.

You were supposed to cross the finish line with me for our first marathon, you were supposed to stand next to me at my wedding, you were supposed to save so many lives, you were supposed to be the aunt to my children. It was not supposed to be like this. I find peace in knowing how strong your faith was in God and how your actions reflected Him in everything you did…

I’m not sure how I will continue this life without you by my side, but what I do know is I will run that 26.2 in your honor and let everyone know of the perfect, beautiful, hilarious, smart, kind, and driven human that Laken Riley was. I will forever be proud to have called you my bestest friend and roommate. I love you to the moon and back, and I can’t wait to see you when I get up there <3

The men lifted the casket into the hearse. Someone closed the door. A police radio blared. Cruiser lights flashed blue and red, reflecting in the dark pools on the cold pavement. Wind blew and rain fell. The procession left the church, turning right onto the parkway, heading down toward the cemetery.

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