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For Suspect in U. of Georgia Killing, an Obscure Trail Across States

Jose Antonio Ibarra, the man charged with the killing of a nursing student on the University of Georgia campus, migrated from Venezuela, was arrested when he crossed the border illegally near El Paso, Texas, in September 2022 and made a detour to New York.

In addition to the border arrest, he was cited for two nonviolent offenses before Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student at Augusta University, was killed by apparent blows to the head last Thursday on a University of Georgia running trail.

Mr. Ibarra, 26, was living at a modest apartment complex filled with immigrants from around the world who worked in poultry plants, fast food restaurants and construction work in and around Athens, Ga.

His nomadic life was in some ways a familiar journey until it became a very unfamiliar one — when he was charged last Friday with Ms. Riley’s murder and thrust into the raging currents of the nation’s bitter divisions over immigration.

Laken Riley in a photo from a social media account.

Now he faces charges of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, hindering a 911 call and concealing the death of another person. The Clarke County coroner Sonny Wilson said in preliminary findings that the cause of Ms. Riley’s death was blunt force trauma to the head. The full autopsy results may not be available for a few more weeks.

When Mr. Ibarra was arrested after crossing the border, he was released quickly with temporary permission to stay in the country, according to federal officials.

That release, or parole, was a practice the Biden administration used when officials were overwhelmed with high numbers of crossings. It ended that practice about six months later.

It was typical for many Venezuelans to be released with permission to stay temporarily because they could not be repatriated back to their country due to strained diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela. Some six million Venezuelans have fled their troubled country, the largest population displacement in Latin America’s modern history.

Mr. Ibarra then went to New York City, where he had a minor brush with law enforcement. In August, he was arrested after driving a scooter without a license and with a child who was not wearing a helmet.

He was not prosecuted or jailed. The case records are sealed, and it was not clear if he was instead issued a summons or fined for a motor vehicle violation.

He eventually moved to an apartment complex in Athens, Ga., that was just walking distance away from where Ms. Riley’s body was found but seems to be worlds away from the residents there.

The apartment complex has a diverse community of working-class immigrants, from a range of Latino and Asian backgrounds — Venezuelan, but Chinese and Indian, too.

Residents in the area have said they are concerned with how this case will affect their undocumented neighbors.

A resident in the apartment complex said Mr. Ibarra’s brother, Diego Ibarra, 29, had moved in around May. Diego was hired as a dishwasher at the University of Georgia in early February before being fired after presenting a fake green card and failing to present further documentation, according to a university spokesman.

Diego Ibarra was charged with possessing a fraudulent green card and has been arrested three times by Athens police, including for driving under the influence. He is set to appear in court in March.

While in Georgia, the Ibarra brothers were arrested in October in connection with a shoplifting case at a local Walmart. Officials ran Jose Ibarra’s name through state and national databases at the time but did not find any warrant for him or any other indication that he should be detained.

Mr. Ibarra was denied bond at a hearing on Saturday and remained in jail, the authorities said.

The district attorney has appointed a special prosecutor for the case, and it has become a heated political battle ground, as some conservative politicians have zeroed in on Mr. Ibarra’s immigration status. On Wednesday, protesters expressed their anger over the liberal immigration policies advocated by Kelly Girtz, a Democrat, mayor of Athens-Clarke County. For instance, he called for ending the practice of holding arrested immigrants in jail for 48-hour periods, which gives federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials an opportunity to pick them up for potential deportation.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Police Chief Jerry Saulters declined to provide further details of the case, citing the ongoing prosecution. The investigation is in the jurisdiction of the University of Georgia police.

Eileen Sullivan and Ernesto Londoño contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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