Prosecutors Wind Down Case Against Immigrant Accused of Killing Iowa Student

The prosecution has spent four days presenting to jurors a detailed chronology of the investigation that began with Mollie Tibbetts’ disappearance and the arrest of Cristhian Bahena Rivera five weeks later.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to testimony that has been translated into Spanish by an interpreter during his trial in Davenport, Iowa, last Thursday. Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP, Pool)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Prosecutors rested their case Monday in the murder trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera after four days of testimony that they say revealed clear evidence that points exclusively to the Mexican immigrant dairy farm worker as the man who murdered Mollie Tibbetts in June 2018 and left her body in a remote cornfield.

Rivera, 26, is charged with the stabbing death of Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student 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.

The family’s and the community’s exhaustive search for Tibbetts had drawn national attention in 2018, but with the discovery of the young woman’s body and the accusation that a Mexican immigrant killed her, 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.

After the state rested its case Monday, and after the jurors had been dismissed, Rivera’s defense lawyers moved for acquittal on the charge of murder in the first degree, arguing that there was not enough evidence shown that the defendant acted willfully, deliberately, and with premeditated intent to kill. As for a lesser charge of second-degree murder, the defense argued that the state likewise has not proved that the defendant acted with legally required malice aforethought.

The state resisted the motion, arguing the evidence is overwhelming, and Judge Joel Yates denied the defense motion. The trial will resume Tuesday morning with the defense presenting its case.

The prosecution has spent the last four days presenting to jurors a detailed chronology of the investigation that began with Tibbetts’ disappearance and the arrest of Rivera about five weeks later. That investigation included interviews with Tibbetts’ friends, family and community members which turned up a number of possible “persons of interest,” including her boyfriend.

But what turned the investigation around was a surveillance video that showed a glimpse of a jogger running near the home where Tibbetts had been staying. In that video, law enforcement authorities spotted a black Chevy Malibu with distinctive features that passed through the video image several times. Authorities later identified Rivera as the owner of the Malibu.

“That broke open the case for us,” Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent Trent Vileta testified Monday.

Rivera’s lawyers Chad and Jennifer Frese have focused their cross-examination of witnesses on planting doubts about the state’s case by pointing out that there were a number of other suspects who could have committed the murder.

On Aug. 16, 2018, the day after the Malibu with after-market chrome door handles, side mirrors, and spoked wheels was identified on the video, Poweshiek Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Kivi spotted the car stopped on an Interstate 80 off ramp.

He followed the car, got the license plate number and ran the plate through dispatch. It was registered to a female in Tama – Arely Lorenzana, 27, Rivera’s cousin who purchased the car for him. The officer tailed the car into an alley in Malcom. Kivi got out and spoke to the driver, who produced a birth certificate to identify himself. It was Rivera.

Four days later, Rivera was brought into the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office for an interview, which was conducted by Pamela Romero, an Iowa City police officer at the time, who is a native of Mexico and speaks Spanish fluently.  The interview lasted 11 hours and was entirely in Spanish, as Romero speaks very little English.

Rivera said that on July 18, he had seen Tibbetts three times, then came back and parked his car. He told authorities that he had a confrontation with her when she tried to slap him, screamed, and threatened to call the police. He claims to have “blacked out” regarding details about what happened next, but as he was later driving he looked down in his lap and saw a pair of earbuds Tibbetts had been wearing. It was then, he told authorities, that he remembered he had her body in the trunk of his car. Police say he admitting to taking the body to the cornfield, where he covered it with corn stalks.

Romero told the jury that during the interview, “He stated how he made contact with her. He stated that he did not remember how he put her inside the vehicle, but he did remember getting her out of the vehicle, coming to the cornfield, bringing her into the cornfield, dropping her down, and leaving right away – after covering her body with corn leaves and leaving right away.”

At 4:30 a.m. during the interview that had begun the evening before, Rivera agreed to take law enforcement officers to that scene, a cornfield where the corn was at least head-high.

When asked by Romero if he killed her, Rivera allegedly said, “I brought you here, didn’t I? I don’t know how I did it.”

Romero told jurors she took this statement as Rivera saying he committed the murder.

Amy Johnson with the DCI Criminalistics Laboratory testified that authorities could see bright colored running shoes and a body covered with corn stalks. After removing the corn stalks, they saw a body with a pink sports bra, black socks and no shorts. Black shorts were near her body, along with a pink band of fabric, “what appears to be underwear.”

DNA collected from Tibbetts’ parents and from the body initially identified as “Doe” all matched, confirming that the body found on Aug. 21 was Tibbetts.

Blood samples taken from the trunk of Rivera’s Malibu in 20 different locations also matched the DNA of Tibbetts.

The state medical examiner testified Monday that Tibbetts died of multiple sharp-force injuries and the manner of death was homicide. He said she had been stabbed at least nine and possibly 12 times by a knife, with stab wounds found in the head, neck, and abdomen with a sharp-force injuries.

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