Defense attorneys representing Mollie Tibbetts’ convicted killer presented more bombshell new claims on Thursday, a day after a judge delayed sentencing due to new information pointing to other potential suspects.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, an undocumented farmworker, was convicted in May of abducting the University of Iowa student while she was out jogging, killing her, and dumping her in a cornfield. He maintains that he was abducted by two masked men, who forced him to help them kidnap and kill Tibbetts—a story the jury ultimately didn’t buy.
But, in a July 8 motion, his attorneys said two people came forward separately after seeing Bahana Rivera’s testimony on TV to corroborate parts of his story. One was an inmate, Arni Maki, who said another inmate named Gavin Jones had admitted to kidnapping Tibbetts for sex trafficking, keeping her in a trap house run by a 50-year-old man named James Low, then killing her when the publicity around the case blew up and plotting to blame it on a random Hispanic person.
The second person was Jones’ ex-girlfriend, who came forward to say that Jones had once held a gun to her head and admitted he killed Tibbetts. Jail records and court records confirm the relationships between Jones and Maki, and Jones and his ex-girlfriend, defense attorneys Jennifer and Chad Frese said.
On Thursday, the attorneys revealed that they only found out after the trial that another woman was picked up by an Iowa state trooper on the side of Highway 92 in 2019. She told authorities that she had been introduced to Low at a Casey’s store in Brooklyn, Iowa, in May 2018 and was lured back to a trap house where she was then drugged and prostituted nightly for weeks.
Tibbetts vanished from the same town two months later in a case that was seized upon politically due to the suspect’s undocumented status.
“This woman indicated that she was in a room by herself but that she could hear voices of other women, and voices of men, and Low talking in the morning saying, ‘Did you have a good time, was it worth it?’” Jennifer Frese said. “This woman was deemed credible, as law enforcement requested from a magistrate a search warrant and they were granted a search warrant for James Low’s residence.”
Low was taken into custody last week by federal authorities on unrelated illegal weapons charges and hasn’t been charged in relation to any missing persons cases.
However, Chad Frese said investigators never provided them with information about their investigation into Low, or the second woman’s abduction—information he believes may be exculpatory for Bahena Rivera.
“They had that two years prior on trial,” he said. “They sat on information.”
Low was recently named a suspect in the disappearance of an 11-year-old Montezuma, Iowa, boy named Xavior Harrelson, who vanished in May this year and hasn’t been found.
“We have information that three people have vanished out of thin air in this small rural county,” Jennifer Frese said. “Mollie Tibbetts, Xavior Harrelson, and the woman that reported being abducted in May of 2018 and sex trafficked.”
Chad Frese added, “There’s something rotten in this area and [prosecutors] don’t want to help us provide any information.”
But prosecutor Scott Brown said Thursday there was “zero” evidence linking the three cases, and prosecutors would strongly resist any effort to help dig up new evidence.
“They want to go and knock themselves out trying to find out all this confusing information that’s just been presented to the court, go right ahead and do it,” he said Thursday. “But there is nothing in the rules, nothing in the case law, that compels the state to chase its tail because they’re asking us to do it.”
He said previous jailhouse statements by Maki had been passed on to the Freses before trial but they apparently were uninterested because the statements didn’t line up with some of what Bahena Rivera had said.
“They’ve got buyer's remorse when it comes with this information,” he said.
Judge Joel Yates indicated Thursday he may set a date for a hearing on whether a new trial is warranted.