Cristhian Rivera found guilty in Mollie Tibbetts murder

Case drew national attention

Josh Marcus
Friday 28 May 2021 21:00 BST
Cristhian Bahena Rivera
Cristhian Bahena Rivera (The Des Moines Register)
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Cristhian Bahena Rivera was found guilty on Friday of murdering Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who disappeared after going for a run in July 2018. His first-degree murder charge means he will serve a life sentence in Iowa prison.

The disappearance drew national attention and launched a monthlong manhunt, followed by a two-week trial in a county court in Davenport, Iowa.

During their investigation, authorities identified that Bahena Rivera, a Mexican national, had been circling the area where Ms Tibbetts was last seen. In a police interview once he was apprehended, he admitted to following the young woman, whom he said he found “hot”.

After fighting with Ms Tibbetts, Bahena Rivera says he “blacked out” and realised he had her bloodied body in his trunk when he came to, which he hid in a cornfield. Forensic experts told the jury they found smears of blood matching Ms Tibbetts’s DNA in Bahena Rivera’s car.

“Five weeks, her body lay in that cornfield,” prosecutor Scott Brown said in his closing arguments this week. “And you know who knew about that? One man. One man knew. And he is here. His name is Cristhian Bahena Rivera.”

During the trial, Bahena Rivera’s defence had argued there were other potential suspects, including Ms Tibbetts’s boyfriend, Dalton Jack. Bahena Rivera himself took the stand on Wednesday and denied killing the woman, saying instead that masked men came to his home and forced him to drive into the country, where they killed Ms Tibbetts and make him hide the body.

Bahena Rivera, a farm worker, is an undocumented migrant who came to the US from Mexico as a teenager, and the murder quickly became political fodder for Republicans who sought to drum up anti-immigrant paranoia to build support for initiatives like former President Donald Trump’s border wall and cutting migration to the US.

“A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her,” Mr. Trump said in one video. “We need the wall, we need our immigration laws changed, we need our border laws changed.”

The president made similar arguments around the country with a group of what he called “angel families”, those who had lost a loved one to violence from undocumented immigrants.

Most studies suggest noncitizens – who can face immediate deportation if caught committing certain offences – are less likely than the average American to commit a crime.

Ms Tibbetts’s family lamented how the loss of their loved one had turned into a political talking point.

“Sadly, others have ignored our request. They have instead chosen to callously distort and corrupt Mollie’s tragic death to advance a cause she vehemently opposed. I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome,” her father Rob Tibbetts wrote in the Des Moines Register. “But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”

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