Nearly three years after University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts vanished while on an evening run near her home, a local farmhand is on trial for allegedly murdering the 20-year-old before her dumping in a cornfield.
“He admitted he had seen Mollie the night she disappeared...he admitted ‘she was hot,’ in his words,” Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver told jurors in Scott County Courthouse on Wednesday. “He admitted to fighting with her…[and] taking her into the field and leaving her there, covering her with corn stalks.”
Cristian Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old Mexican national who came to the U.S. illegally and worked at an Iowa dairy farm, has been charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege he stabbed Tibbetts at least seven times on July 18, 2018, near the Brooklyn, Iowa home where she was staying. After a relentless state-wide search for Tibbetts that sparked national attention, her body was found on Aug. 21, 2018, about 15 minutes from her home. Bahena Rivera had directed authorities to the cornfield where he hid her.
“Mollie Tibbetts. This case is her story. This case is the story of Molly's disappearance, and the story of Mollie's murder,” Klaver said.
The high-profile and political nature of the case prompted authorities to move the trial to another county to ensure impartiality. But swirling questions remain as to whether Bahena Rivera’s rights were violated during the investigation because of his undocumented status.
In March 2019, Bahena Rivera claimed he was not informed of his right to an attorney or his right not to cooperate before a 12-hour police interview. He has maintained his innocence despite previously confessing during another interview, implying he was coerced. He has pleaded not guilty and his defense team deferred its opening statement on Wednesday until the state rests its case.
Prosecutors insisted on Wednesday that video evidence, DNA analysis, and Bahena Rivera’s “partial confession” prove that the farmhand is Tibbetts’ killer. Walking jurors through the crime, Klaver explained how Tibbetts, a psychology major, was house-sitting for her boyfriend and his brother that summer. Blake Jack, the brother of Tibbetts’ boyfriend, testified Wednesday that Tibbetts was at the house to watch the dogs while he and his brother were away at work.
The night of July 18, prosecutors said, video surveillance from a neighbor showed Bahena Rivera’s black Chevy Malibu appearing to circle Tibbetts as she ran one of the normal routes she carved out over her years as an “avid runner.” Bahena Rivera later told police that he drove past her but turned around because she was attractive.
Prosecutors said Bahena Rivera admitted that he got out of his car to run behind Tibbetts—and became angry when she threatened to call the police on him for harassing her. Klaver said that in a police interview, Bahena Rivera insisted he “blacked out” and that the next thing he knew, he was driving his car with Tibbetts’ body in his truck and her headphone on his lap.
The Iowa State Medical Examiner later ruled Tibbetts' death a “homicide resulting from multiple sharp force injuries.” Klaver said on Wednesday that evidence suggests Bahena Rivera stabbed her 7 to 12 times before eventually dumping her underneath some corn stalks.
Dalton Jack, Tibbetts’ boyfriend, testified Wednesday that the last communication he had with her was a July 18 Snapchat he opened the next morning. On July 19, Jack said that he received a call from one of her co-workers saying that she hadn’t shown up for work. Jack said he called his brother Blake for help, who eventually called the police after conferring with neighbors and Tibbetts’ friends.
Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Simpson, who first responded to the missing person case, testified on Wednesday there were no signs of a struggle at the Jack house. He noted that the dogs had relieved themselves in the house, indicating they had been alone for several hours.
After a fruitless search for Tibbetts for over a month, investigators got a break in the case when they identified Bahena Rivera’s Chevy with non-standard rims and a chrome handle as the car in the surveillance video, Klaver said Wednesday. On Aug. 20, Bahena Rivera agreed to be questioned by the police, and he admitted to seeing Tibbetts.
The next day, prosecutors said, Bahena Rivera admitted to the murder.
“Ladies and gentlemen, when you examine this evidence together, there can be no other conclusion than the defendant killed Mollie Tibbetts,” Klaver said. “And I’ll ask you to return a verdict, the only verdict that justice demands, that you find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree.”