A man scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday to life in prison without parole for killing college student Mollie Tibbetts got a last-minute reprieve on Wednesday in light of bombshell new information pointing to other potential suspects.
In May, a jury convicted Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 27, an Iowa dairy farm worker, of first-degree murder in the 2018 death of Tibbetts, a 20-year-old student at the University of Iowa. On Wednesday, Judge Joel Yates ordered Bahena Rivera’s sentencing to be delayed after two witnesses independently approached authorities with stories that called into question his level of involvement in the crime.
“We are glad that Judge Yates has delayed sentencing to deal with this very important issue,” Chad Frese, one of Bahena Rivera’s defense attorneys, told The Daily Beast. “In our opinion, there is really no other option at this point. The motions we have on file, we believe, detail some very troubling circumstances in the investigation of our client and includes some information that was withheld from us that is certainly exculpatory and relevant.”
Central to the prosecution’s case was surveillance video that placed Bahena Rivera’s car in the area where Tibbetts vanished while out for a run, DNA evidence that identified blood found in the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s car as Tibbetts’, and a partial confession by Bahena Rivera, who directed investigators to a cornfield where Tibbetts’ body was found. In his own defense, Bahena Rivera claimed he had been abducted by two masked men who then forced him to help them kidnap and kill Tibbetts.
The case became a national flashpoint due to Bahena Rivera’s undocumented status; he came to the U.S. illegally as a teenager. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called Bahena Rivera a “predator” who slipped through a “broken immigration system.” And then-President Donald Trump used the case as an opportunity to rail against undocumented immigrants and agitate for his long promised border wall.
“You heard about today, with the illegal alien coming in from, very sadly, from Mexico,” Trump told supporters at a West Virginia rally the day Bahena Rivera was charged. “And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman. Should have never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad... We’re getting it changed but we have to get more Republicans.”
According to a 10-page motion from Bahena Rivera’s defense attorneys, an inmate at an unnamed Iowa correctional facility was watching Bahena Rivera’s May 26 court testimony on television. Prosecutors—and two days later, a jury—discounted Bahena Rivera’s account of having been kidnapped and forced to commit a heinous crime as wholly unbelievable. But the unidentified inmate told the prison chaplain that he could verify the story Bahena Rivera, who had been jailed since his 2018 arrest, told on the stand.
The chaplain called the associate warden, who interviewed the inmate. The inmate said that during a previous stay in county jail, another inmate asked if he “knew about the Mollie Tibbetts case.” Identified as “Inmate 2” in the July 8 defense motion, this person claimed to have taken part in Tibbetts’ murder.
“Inmate 2 then went on to detail that he and another individual whom he identifies by name, were staying in a ‘trap house’ owned by an approximately 50-year-old man involved in the sex trafficking trade,” the motion states, explaining that it was inside a second “trap house” that he saw Tibbetts bound and gagged.
Inmate 2 said Tibbetts “was going to be sex trafficked but the publicity got too big too quick,” the defense motion states, citing investigators. Inmate 2 and a second, unnamed person then carried out a plan Inmate 2 said had been devised by the 50-year-old man—to stab Tibbetts to death and “dump her body near a Hispanic male in order to make it appear that the Hispanic male committed the crime,” according to the motion. “Inmate 2 then said they did, in fact, kill Mollie Tibbetts and carry out the plan in such a way that the Hispanic man would be incriminated.”
“Inmate again thought Inmate 2 was exaggerating initially until he watched the end of the trial and heard Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s testimony which closely matched Inmate 2’s story,” the motion says.
The defense motion points out that the 50-year-old man had been a suspect in the recent disappearance of an 11-year-old Montezuma, Iowa, boy named Xavior Harrelson. The man, identified in local media reports as James Manuel Lowe, was arrested last week by federal authorities on illegal weapons charges, but he has not been charged in relation to the Harrelson or Tibbetts cases.
The second witness, who did not know the first, independently contacted Poweshiek County deputies later that same day, the defense motion states. This person was described in the filing as “very emotional” and likely under the influence when she first spoke to police. The woman claimed to have been in a vehicle a month earlier when a man reportedly pointed a gun at his own head and said, “[T]hat Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbett’s [sic] because I raped her and killed her.”
This was the same person the first witness had already identified as Inmate 2, states the motion.
All of this came out after the defense had rested its case and the jury had returned a guilty verdict.
“While perhaps not every bit of the account fits neatly into defendant’s account of the events, enough of the facts fit to certainly question whether the state would have been able to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt had this information been known and presented to a jury,” the motion states.
Iowa state attorney general’s office spokesperson Lynn Hicks told the Associated Press that authorities continue to believe that Bahena Rivera is guilty of Tibbetts’ murder.