An undocumented Mexican immigrant has been convicted of the first-degree murder of Mollie Tibbetts.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, was unanimously convicted by jurors on Friday afternoon. First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence in the State of Iowa, with Bahena Rivera set to be formally sentenced on July 15.
Bahena Rivera sat expressionless as the verdict was read out at a courtroom in Scott County, Iowa, on Friday afternoon. It came after around eight hours deliberation, with the jury comprised of five women and seven men.
Speaking after the verdict, prosecutor Scott Brown told of the Tibbetts’ family’s relief at the verdict.
Brown said: ‘We just spoke to the family, they’re relieved they’re pleased with the verdict.’
Bahena Rivera, 26, is accused of stabbing Tibbetts to death in Powesheik County, Iowa, in July 2018. She vanished while out for a jog in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.
He was convicted after surveillance photo captured his Chevy near Tibbetts during her final jog. Bahena Rivera was further implicated in the killing after the student’s blood was found in his car – and he later agreed to lead cops to Tibbetts’ body in a corn field, around a month after she vanished.
The undocumented Mexican immigrant is accused of following Tibbetts and claims he got out of his car to talk to her.
Tibbetts is said to have threatened to call the police with Rivera claiming he then got angry at her and ‘blacked out.’ Rivera said he later woke to find Tibbetts bleeding in the trunk of his car, and buried her in a corn field.
Bahena Rivera is led out of court in handcuffs after being convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbets on Friday
Bahena Rivera pictured in court on May 27, the day before jurors reached their verdict on the Mollie Tibbetts’ murder trial
Tibbetts, pictured in 2016, was abducted and murdered while out for a jog in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, in July 2018
A huge hunt for Tibbetts’ body was launched afterwards, with Rivera leading investigators to her remains in a cornfield several weeks later.
During his testimony earlier this week, he stunned jurors by claiming two masked men had forced him to abduct Tibbetts’ at knifepoint, after ordering him to follow the student, before they put her in the trunk of his car.
But case prosecutor Brown rubbished that excuse after Friday’s verdict, saying it was convenient that Bahena Rivera’s alleged aggressors were masked, and that he had been unable to pick out any identifying features.
Bahena Rivera’s own defense attorney Chad Fresne himself admitted his client’s version of events had been difficult to stand up.
He said: ‘It’s like trying to prove there’s not a Santa Claus. We don’t know who those persons could be. Remember our client was out in the middle of a very rural location. We tried to link it up as best we could with people who could have some kind of motive, but that’s very difficult to establish.’
Testifying through a translator on Wedesday, Rivera sought to shift blame for Tibbetts’ murder onto two unidentified men he said confronted him on the day she died, then killed her and left him in possession of the body.
He claimed he never reported the ordeal to police and dumped Tibbetts’ body in a cornfield instead because he was afraid they would learn he was in the US illegally and deport him.
Rivera, 26, said he got out of his shower on July 18, 2018 and saw the two men standing in his living room wearing dark-colored sweaters with their faces covered.
One was larger and holding a gun, he said, and the smaller one was holding a knife.
He said they told him ‘I shouldn’t do anything stupid and everything was going to be okay.’
He said they never threatened him, but directed him into his car and told him to drive straight into Brooklyn, Iowa, where they came across a jogger he said he now knows was Tibbetts.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the illegal Mexican immigrant accused of murdering Iowa jogger Mollie Tibbetts, is seen testifying at his trial on Wednesday. He told the court he was ordered to follow Tibbetts by two armed, masked men who held him at knifepoint and then placed her body in the trunk of his car
The men in the car with him, he said, crouched down as low as they could, and directed Rivera to drive past Tibbetts three or four times.
The last time they approached her, Rivera testified, she was on her way back into town.
At that point, he said, the man with the knife, sitting next to him in the passenger seat told him to stop and got out of the car, walking towards town.
Rivera said he was gone for 10 to 12 minutes while he and the larger man waited. As the minutes past by, he said, the man in the back started whispering, and he heard him say: ‘Come on Jack,’ an apparent reference to Dalton Jack, Tibbetts’ boyfriend.
When he testified last week Jack was confronted with phone records showing he only called Tibbetts once in the days after she vanished, with Snapchat messages about his affair with another woman and with questions about his temper.
Police said they cleared Jack as a suspect after establishing he was out of town for work when Tibbetts went missing.
When the smaller man got back into the car, Rivera said, he told him to keep driving, ultimately telling him to stop and hand him the keys, as both men got out.
At that point, he said, he heard and felt them put something in the truck.
The men then got back inside the car, Rivera said, and ordered him to drive quickly down a gravel road for five to eight minutes until they arrived at a white house and approached a corn field.
They allegedly told Rivera they knew about his ex-girlfriend and their daughter, and said that if he told someone they would ‘take care of them.’
The men then took his keys and cellphone, he said, and he decided to get out of the car because he did not have the keys, but decided to see what the men put in his trunk.
‘Obviously I knew there was something in the trunk,’ he said.
When he opened it, Rivera testified, he found Tibbett’s body along with his cellphone and keys.
After a few minutes debating what to do, he said, he decided to take the body out of the trunk and cover her body with corn ‘because I didn’t want her to be exposed to the sun.’
She was still in clothes at the time, save for one shoe.
Rivera then used his phone to get home, he said, and did not call the police ‘because I was scared.’
Photos of Mollie Tibbetts’ partially naked and decomposing body that was dumped in an Iowa cornfield were shown to jurors on Friday as Cristhian Bahena Rivera stand trial. Pictured above is the crime scene tape around the cornstalks where her body was found in 2018
The defense was trying to paint Rivera as a hard-working, family-oriented immigrant who used a coyote to get to the United States by way of Texas to earn money for his family.
In an opening statement for the defense on Tuesday, Bahena Rivera’s lawyer claimed cops ‘coerced a confession out of him’ after he’d spent 12 hours scooping poop at a farm before being interrogated.
The lawyer, Jennifer Frese, said that authorities conducted an incomplete investigation into the 20-year-old’s death in July 2018 and that they were too quick to close the case.
The defense had declined to give an opening statement when the trial began last week, opting to do so after prosecutors rested their case on Monday.
‘Her family deserves justice but so does Cristhian Bahena Rivera,’ Frese said Tuesday, standing next to her client.
The defense began by questioning the confession and DNA evidence. Frese told jurors: ‘He wasn’t in an interview; he was in an interrogation.
‘There’s no dispute on the facts that my client worked twelve hours at a dairy farm scooping poop, cleaning grounds, and then, at the end of his day, he was brought to the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office.
‘You will hear about this interrogation, and that it went on and on and on.’
Former Iowa City police officer Pamela Romero testified last Thursday that she noticed he had fallen asleep when she went to get him food. Romero recalled Bahena Rivera saying that he was sleepy but she said he remained alert and engaged during the questioning
The jury last week was shown photos of Tibbetts’ partially naked and decomposing body after it was dumped in an Iowa cornfield, as well as images of her discarded black shorts and underwear.
Bahena Rivera, who has pleaded not guilty, may have entered the US from Mexico illegally a decade ago
An autopsy found that Tibbetts had been stabbed seven to ten times in the chest, ribs, neck and skull.
Frese said of Bahena Rivera’s questioning: ‘And then they started to confront him with the evidence. They confronted him with this videotape. They confronted him with these pictures.
‘And they said, ‘you know, we don’t believe you. We don’t believe that you weren’t there.’
‘And the confrontation continues until it was put in my client’s head — ‘perhaps you blacked out.’ The state — in this case — they got what they wanted. And they closed the case. They got what they needed.
‘There was an intense amount of pressure, that’s what the evidence has shown you, to close this case, to arrest someone for this vicious crime.
‘And instead of continuing to work the case — instead of continuing to work the evidence — they just submitted it to you.’
Former Iowa City police officer Pamela Romero testified last Thursday that she noticed he had fallen asleep when she went to get him food. Romero recalled Bahena Rivera saying that he was sleepy but she said he remained alert and engaged during the questioning.
Defense attorney Chad Frese, right, hands Dalton Jack, Mollie Tibbetts’ boyfriend, a phone record to review as Jack testifies for a second time during Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s trial, Tuesday
Defense attorney Jennifer Frese gives an opening statement while presenting Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s case Tuesday
Tibbetts disappearance triggered a search involving local, state and federal agencies and hundreds of volunteers.
Investigators say they began focusing on Bahena Rivera a month later after finding surveillance video showing his black Chevy Malibu driving back and forth near where Tibbetts had been seen.
They said he confessed during an 11-hour interrogation to approaching Tibbetts, fighting with her after she threatened to call the police, putting her body in his trunk and hiding it in a cornfield.
Investigators say he led them to the body, which was badly decomposed and hidden underneath cornstalks. Tibbetts´ DNA was found on blood spots on the rubber trunk seal and trunk liner of the Malibu.
Rivera claimed in court on Wednesday that he brought the police to the body because he was tired and wanted the interrogation to end.
Prosecutors told jurors that an autopsy found that she had been stabbed seven to 12 times in the chest, ribs, neck, and skull, and that she died from sharp force injuries
Mollie pictured with her father Rob. Tibbetts disappearance triggered a search involving local, state and federal agencies and hundreds of volunteers
Frese told jurors that the case was about a Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. to earn better wages.
She said Bahena Rivera ‘is a yes man’ who did anything he was asked on the dairy farm where he worked, and cooperated when law enforcement showed up there and asked to question him.
Investigators say Bahena Rivera told them he ‘blacked out’ and couldn’t remember how he killed Tibbetts.
The first defense witness called Tuesday was forensic consultant Michael Spence, who agreed that Tibbetts´ DNA was found on blood stains in the trunk, but said there was also unaccounted for DNA in the trunk, including at least one unknown male and female.
Spence conceded that it would not be surprising to find other DNA sources in a trunk of a vehicle that had been used, and that there are many ways they could have ended up there.
Iris Gamboa, the mother of Bahena Rivera’s daughter, testified Tuesday that she lived with him for four years before they broke up in 2017. She said he worked 12-hour days and only got two days off every two weeks.
She said he was a good father who paid $500 per month to support their daughter, was not violent toward them and never showed excessive anger. Bahena Rivera was also sending money back to his parents in Mexico and paying to build them a house, she said.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to court proceedings during his trial, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. Bahena Rivera is on trial for the 2018 stabbing death of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP, Pool)
The defense showed jurors a photograph of a smiling Bahena Rivera and Gamboa with their young daughter at a family party in 2017.
‘He was happy that his daughter was happy,’ Gamboa said. ‘It was a good day.’
Bahena Rivera’s aunt, Alejandra Cervantes, said he was known as playful around the family and that children love him. She recalled going to the sheriff’s office where Bahena Rivera was being interrogated but being unable to see him or get in touch with him by phone.