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Crimes of opportunity difficult to prevent with any measures

By Christie Pool, Staff Writer

            My youngest daughter, a senior at the University of Georgia, called last Thursday afternoon to let me know that a woman was murdered on UGA’s campus. Laken Riley, 22, went out for a morning run and never returned.         

            Nightmare doesn’t even begin to cover what her family is going through as they prepare to bury her this Friday in her hometown of Woodstock.

            In his press conference Friday evening following the arrest of a suspect, UGA Police Department Chief Jeffrey Clark called Riley’s killing “a crime of opportunity.” Clark said the man they arrested for the murder, Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, did not know her. A random murder.

            “No motive,” the chief said. “A very isolated incident. This was an individual who woke up with bad intentions on that day.”

            Crime statistics show that these types of attacks are rare. There had not been a homicide on UGA’s campus (home to more than 20,000 students) in over 20 years when Tara Louise Baker, a law student, was murdered in her Athens apartment on January 19, 2001. That case remains unsolved.

            Riley’s murder shook everyone’s sense of safety. From the parents and grandparents at home watching the news unfold to the students on campus who were shocked and saddened by the tragedy.

            My mother, when informed of the news, immediately told me to tell her granddaughter not to go anywhere – or basically do anything – alone ever again. Literally ever. Pretty standard grandmotherly advice. But completely impractical.

            Riley did everything right and her life was still taken from her. She was running during daylight hours in an established park area where other students interviewed in the wake of the tragedy said they too often ran.

            Random. According to Wikipedia, a crime of opportunity is “a crime that is committed without planning when the perpetrator sees that they have the chance to commit the act at that moment and seizes it. Such acts have little or no premediatation.”

            So what are people to do to protect themselves? A crime of opportunity can happen anytime, anywhere. And despite the best efforts of individuals for their personal safety and those of law enforcement, these crimes  are, by their very nature, nearly impossible to pre-empt.

            If someone wants to do something bad to another human being they will find a way  whether on a running trail, in a home, in a business, on the road, in a restaurant, or in a school. We can’t have a police presence literally everywhere at all times.    

            UGA President Jere Morehead sent an email to parents Sunday saying “There is not – nor will there ever be – any higher priority at the University of Georgia than the safety and security of your students while they study, live, and work on campus.” Morehead went on to say the university, over the past eight years, had implemented a series of measures to protect students, investing $16 million to hire more police, install an extensive security camera network, enhance lighting, establish a nightly rideshare program, and the creation of a widely-used UGA Safe app which can immediately call the UGA Police and share the user’s location in real time.

            While wonderful, these measures will never be enough to prevent someone who wakes up in the morning determined to do something terrible.

            Riley died from “blunt force trauma,” according to the police chief, while out for a jog but someone could have also gotten into their car and driven onto a sidewalk where students were walking. Or they could have gotten a gun and shot anyone at any time in any location, in broad daylight or not.

            Be vigilant, of course, but we can’t ask people to never leave their own doorsteps in the hopes it will prevent all tragedy. Living in fear is not the answer.

            According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s  Crime Data Explorer site, in the state of Georgia there were 733 homicides in 2022. In 410 of those the relationship between the victim and killer was unknown; in 113 cases the killer was an acquaintance, and in 59 cases a stranger. There were 418 homicides inside a home, 137 on a highway/street, 54 in a parking garage/lot, 27 in a bar, 26 at a gas station, 24 at a convenience store, 19 in a park/playground, 15 in a commercial building, 13 in a hotel/motel, 12 in a field/woods, and eight in a grocery store, among other locations.

            We can never hide from wickedness. Be cautious, use common sense, but spending your life cowering is no way to live.

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