Suspect in Iowa Murder Trial Shifts Blame to Masked Men

Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s testimony differs dramatically from what jurors have heard so far in his trial for the murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera testifies Wednesday at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa, in his murder trial over the death of Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. (Pool Photo/Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Cristhian Bahena Rivera stunned observers of his trial for the murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts by taking the witness stand Wednesday and testifying that he was abducted by two masked men who ordered him to follow Tibbetts while she was jogging the day she disappeared and later directed him to the cornfield where he hid her body.

Bahena Rivera’s blockbuster testimony was the first time in the three years since the dairy farm worker was accused of Tibbetts’ murder that there has been any mention of this seemingly bizarre scenario.

The 26-year-old Mexican immigrant is accused of killing Tibbetts, who was 20 when she disappeared on July 18, 2018, while taking an evening jog in her home town of Brooklyn, Iowa. Her body was not found until nearly five weeks later in a remote cornfield. Bahena Rivera, who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17, is charged with first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

Bahena Rivera’s testimony Wednesday was starkly different than what jurors in the Davenport, Iowa, courtroom have heard so far in this trial.

The series of events on the day of Tibbetts’ disappearance, as laid out by the state, is that Bahena Rivera, driving a black Chevy Malibu captured on video from a security camera also showing Tibbetts jogging, drove past her several times. Later, he parked his car and ran to catch up with Tibbetts. She threatened to call police, tried to slap him, and screamed. He became angry and said he blacked out but later found Tibbetts’ earbuds in his lap and remembered she was in the trunk of his car. He then took her body into the cornfield and hid it under corn stalks.

Bahena Rivera gave a dramatically different version of events Wednesday.

In an exchange with defense lawyer Jennifer Frese, Bahena Rivera related the events of July 18, saying that he had just stepped out of the shower in his trailer home around 6:30 p.m. to find two strange men sitting in his living room.

A poster for missing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts hangs in the window of a business in Brooklyn, Iowa, in August 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

He said they were dressed in dark clothing with their faces covered. One was carrying a black gun and the other had a camouflage-colored knife. According to the defendant, one said, “Don’t do anything stupid, and everything will be OK.” He testified that he complied because they made a vague threat about his daughter and ex-girlfriend, mentioning her by name.

Then began a trip in his car, with Bahena Rivera driving, one of the two men in the front seat and the other in the back seat. He said the trip took the three into the town of Brooklyn, where they observed a jogger who later turned out to be Tibbetts, who was running in the opposite direction. Bahena Rivera claimed they had him turn around and follow her, and the two men were often crouched down in their seats.

They later had Bahena Rivera stop the car, he testified. The man in the front seat – the one carrying a knife – allegedly got out of the car and was away for about 12 minutes. After he returned, Bahena Rivera said he heard the men open the trunk, and then they directed him to drive to a cornfield. They got out, told him not to say anything about what had happened and left him. At that point Bahena Rivera claims he opened the trunk, discovered the body, and took it into the cornfield, covered it with corn stalks and left.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Scott Brown, an Iowa assistant attorney general, asked Bahena Rivera why he did not tell police officers this story when he was questioned. Bahena Rivera said that, while he was in a “safe place” during the police interview, he did not know if his daughter was safe.

Brown then went over Bahena Rivera’s previous statement to police about the events of June 18 and said: “Mr. Bahena, you stabbed Mollie Tibbetts, right?

“No,” Bahena Rivera replied.

“You alone took Mollie Tibbetts into the cornfield?”

“Yes.”

“You placed corn stalks over her?”

“Yes.”

“You left her there for nearly five weeks?”

“Correct.”

“Did you ever see the two men again?”

“No.”

After Bahena Rivera’s testimony, the defense rested its case Wednesday afternoon and the jury was dismissed. Poweshiek County District Court Judge Joel Yates and the lawyers then conferred regarding jury instructions.

The trial will resume Thursday morning with closing arguments before the case is submitted to the jury.

The trial was moved from Poweshiek County, where the crime occurred, to Scott County due to potential difficulty in finding jurors who could be objective about a crime that stirred strong local passions.

The case also attracted national interest stirred by politicians from Iowa’s Republican governor to then-President Donald Trump, who pointed to the murder as evidence that the nation’s immigration system failed.

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