A prosecutor said in opening statements that evidence will lead jurors to conclude a Mexican immigrant killed a University of Iowa student, while the defendant’s lawyers raised questions about the victim’s boyfriend.
DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A prosecutor in the case against a Mexican immigrant for the 2018 murder of a University of Iowa sophomore told jurors Wednesday in opening statements that the evidence points to no other conclusion than the defendant is guilty of murder in the first degree.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, is charged with the stabbing death of Mollie Tibbetts, who had gone out on an evening jog in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, and never returned home. The trial was moved out of Poweshiek County, where the crime occurred, to Scott County District Court in Davenport due to potential difficulty in finding objective jurors.
While Rivera’s defense attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese said they would make their opening statement after the state has completed its case, they spent much of the morning grilling Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, 23, in an effort to suggest that he had anger issues and that his relationship with Tibbetts had become strained after she learned he had sexual relations with another woman.
Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver laid out for the 12-member jury a trail of evidence beginning with Tibbetts heading out for her run until nearly five weeks later, when authorities discovered her lifeless body in a cornfield.
“This case is the story of Mollie’s disappearance and the story of Mollie’s murder,” Klaver told the jurors, adding she was heading into her sophomore year at the University of Iowa.
An avid runner who had run cross country and track in high school, Tibbetts put on her multi-colored neon running shoes on July 18, 2018, and left the house.
She was last seen by a longtime family friend shortly before 8 p.m. She did not show up for work at a daycare in Grinnell, a few miles from Brooklyn, which led to a search that lasted nearly five weeks and involved hundreds of volunteers, law enforcement, fire departments, and state and federal authorities.
A break in the case came from a surveillance camera from a home down the street from where Tibbetts had been staying. Officers spotted a jogger in the area of her route on the video, and they noticed a black Chevy Mailbu with nonstandard rims and chrome door handles and mirrors. The Malibu was later traced to Rivera.
In an interview with local authorities, Rivera admitted that he had seen Tibbetts and found her attractive — that she “was hot,” in his words. After he saw her the first time, he circled back to take a second look.
The next morning, deputies and officers were guided by Rivera to a cornfield in rural Poweshiek County.
“It was there that he made further admissions,” Klaver told the jurors. “He admitted that he had seen Mollie on the night of July 18, 2018, the night she disappeared. He admitted that he had followed her, and he got out of his car. He admitted to jogging to catch up with her, that he wanted to get close to her. He admitted that Mollie didn’t want anything to do with him, and she threatened to call the police. And he admitted that he became angry at that time. And he admitted to fighting with her.”
The prosecutor added, “And then he said the next thing that he remembers, he’s driving in his car, the Malibu, and he notices Mollie’s earbuds, and he remembers that Mollie is in his trunk. He admits taking Mollie’s body out of the trunk. He admits seeing blood on Mollie’s body and neck. He admits putting Mollie over his shoulder. He describes the body as someone who had fainted. He admitted taking Mollie into the field, laying her face up and putting corn stalks on her body and then leaving.”
Law enforcement found the body “decomposed beyond all recognition, wearing multicolored neon running shoes,” the prosecutor said, and an autopsy confirmed it was Tibbetts. She had been stabbed anywhere from seven to 12 times in the chest, near the ribs, in the neck, and in the skull. A search of the Malibu found blood matching Tibbetts’ DNA on trunk liner and in trunk.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Klaver told the jurors, “when you examine this evidence together, there can be no other conclusion than that the defendant killed Mollie Tibbetts.”
In questioning Tibbetts’ boyfriend Dalton Jack, Rivera’s defense attorney Chad Frese asked Jack how his relationship with another woman affected their relationship. It happened at the beginning of his relationship with Tibbetts, he said.
“I told Mollie about it and we moved past it,” Jack said.
Frese also asked Jack if it is true that he had anger issues and had been known to fight. “Yes,” Jack replied, but he said that was when he was 16 or 17 years old and that his anger was under control by the time he was dating Tibbetts.
The defense attorney also challenged Jack on statements he made to police that he later contradicted on the witness stand. In response, Jack repeatedly said he could not recall some statements to authorities, and that he had not had time to review reports of his earlier statements since he had just flown back to Iowa from North Carolina, where he is stationed in the U.S. Army.
In fact, Jack testified that he did not want to voluntarily appear at the trial because he would have to be in the same room with the defendant.
Asked by Frese why not, Jack said, “I wholeheartedly believe he is guilty.”
The family’s and the community’s desperate search for Tibbetts had drawn national attention in 2018, but with the discovery of the young woman’s body and a Mexican immigrant accused of her murder, the story took an ugly turn. The focus shifted to the immigration debate as politicians from then-President Donald Trump to the governor of Iowa and commentators on cable news and social media suggested that Tibbetts would be alive but for the nation’s failure to secure its borders.