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Laken Riley's Father Speaks Out on Georgia Nursing Student's Death: 'I Just Hate She Was Taken So Early'

Jason Riley told NBC News that he's "angry" to see his daughter's death be "used" in the political debate about immigration border control

<p>Gofundme</p> Laken Riley

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Laken Riley

The heartbroken father of Laken Riley is opening up about his late 22-year-old daughter, who was gruesomely murdered while jogging on the University of Georgia campus in February.

In his first interview since her death, Jason Riley told NBC News that he's found strength through the pain of his loss knowing Laken is "looking down on me," but still wakes up "every day thinking I can call her and I can't."

"She was like an angel," an emotional Jason shared to NBC’s Priscilla Thompson in the chat, which aired Monday on the Today show. "We were looking forward to seeing her graduate next year. She was so full of life. I just hate that she was taken so early."

Laken — a nursing student at Augusta University's campus in Athens, Ga. — was found with her skull "disfigured" on Feb. 22 when she failed to return home from a jog at the UGA Intramural Fields that morning. The Athens-Clarke County Coroner's Office later confirmed to PEOPLE Laken died from blunt force trauma.

Jose Ibarra, 26, has been arrested in connection with her murder, and charged with several offenses including murder, kidnapping and assault. A Venezuelan migrant who entered the U.S. illegally in 2022, Ibarra was never deported despite a previous arrest in New York and a citation for shoplifting in Georgia.

Related: Court Documents Detail Brutal Killing of Laken Riley, Georgia Nursing Student Slain While Jogging

<p>Laken Riley/Facebook</p> Laken Riley

Laken Riley/Facebook

Laken Riley

Related: Laken Riley's Cause of Death Revealed After She's Killed During Jog on University of Georgia Campus

Since her killing, Laken's case has become a flashpoint in the partisan debate over immigration, with both President Joe Biden and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump using it as an example as a need for stronger border control.

Asked if he felt that a stricter immigration policy would have made a difference, Jason told NBC News: "We have no idea if that would have changed anything, but he’s here illegally. He might not have been here had we had secure borders."

Still, Jason warned against that conversation. "I feel like she’s being used somewhat politically. It makes me angry," the grieving father explained. "She was much better than that. She should be raised up for the person that she is."

<p>Laken Riley/ Facebook</p> Laken Riley

Laken Riley/ Facebook

Laken Riley

Police have described Laken's death as "a crime of opportunity."

Ibarra has not yet entered a plea, but is demanding a jury trial in court documents, NBC News reported.

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As he waits for justice in his daughter's death, Jason revealed to Thompson that his sadness extends to Ibarra's family too, whose lives have been forever changed. He said that if he sees the suspect's mother, he hopes to give her a hug because he believes that’s what Laken would have done. 

The Today show airs weekdays (beginning at 7 a.m. ET) on NBC.

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