Police had been unable to find Mollie Tibbetts after she disappeared in Iowa, despite thousands of tips and weeks of investigations. But a major break in the case occurred after the local community of Brooklyn, Iowa launched a campaign to find the missing 20-year-old girl.
A resident of Brooklyn — where the University of Iowa student went missing while on a run nearly five weeks ago — provided authorities with hours of recordings from their home’s outdoor security camera. After combing through the surveillance footage, police made a wild discovery: Ms Tibbetts could be seen on video running through the area as a black Chevy Malibu circled her numerous times.
By tracking the vehicle seen following Ms Tibbetts, police were able to locate a suspect, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24.
Mr Rivera led officials to a body believed to be that of Ms Tibbett this week, according to police documents. He said he had seen her jogging.
He got out of his car and began running alongside Ms Tibbett, according to a police affidavit, before allegedly becoming angry with her.
"At one point, he tells us that Mollie grabbed ahold of her phone and said, 'You need to leave me alone. I'm going to call the police.' And then, she took off running and he, in turn, chased her down,” Rick Rahn, a special agent in charge at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, said during a news conference.
The affidavit also said Mr Rivera panicked and "blacked out". He now faces first degree murder charges.
Investigators said they had earlier searched the area for Ms Tibbetts but did not find her, noting the body was covered by corn stalks when recovered early Tuesday.
"He did in fact lead us to where he had placed Mollie, so we were thankful for that because that allowed us to have some closure for the family,” Mr Rahn said on Wednesday. ”Its not like he was on anybody’s radar throughout the investigation".
Mr Rahn said that Mr Rivera was cooperating with investigators and speaking with the help of a translator. He said an autopsy would be performed on the body Wednesday by the state medical examiner’s office, which would assist investigators in understanding whether Ms Tibbetts had been assaulted.
An autopsy report, which will determine whether or not the body found in the cornfield is that of Ms Tibbett, was expected to take between four to six weeks.
A conviction on first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole in Iowa, which doesn’t have the death penalty.
Ms Tibbetts’ disappearance set off a massive search involving dozens of officers from the FBI, as well as state and local agencies. They focused much of their efforts in and around Brooklyn, searching farm fields, ponds and homes. Investigators asked anyone who was around five locations, including a car wash, a truck stop and a farm south of town, to report if they saw anything suspicious on July 18.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that it lodged a federal immigration detainer for Mr Rivera after he was arrested on the murder charge. That move means the agency has probable cause to believe he is subject to deportation.
Yarrabee Farms, a family-owned company that operates dairy farms in the rolling hills outside Brooklyn, said that the 24-year-old had been an employee in good standing for four years and that it was shocked to learn he was arrested.
The company is owned by the family of Craig Lang, a prominent Republican who previously served as president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press
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