Trial Kicks Off in Iowa Murder Case That Fueled Immigration Debate

A Mexican immigrant is on trial for the 2018 murder of a University of Iowa student that some politicians blamed on a broken immigration system.    

Cristhian Bahena Rivera appears for a hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, in 2019. (Brian Powers/The Des Moines Register via AP File)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — The murder trial of a Mexican immigrant accused of killing a University of Iowa student in 2018 begins Monday with jury selection in Davenport, amid strong interest among Iowans who expressed grief over the loss of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts.

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

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, is charged with first-degree murder in Tibbetts’ death. He will be tried in Scott County District Court in Davenport. The trial was moved from Poweshiek County, where the crime occurred, due to potential difficulty in finding jurors who could be objective about a crime that stirred strong local passions. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, space is limited in the courtroom and the trial will be fed remotely to news media via Zoom and will be carried on Court TV.

Rivera was working on a dairy farm in rural Poweshiek County in east-central Iowa. He emigrated from Mexico to Iowa without legal immigration documents and lived in a trailer home on the farm. His employer has told local news media that Rivera gave them forged documents to obtain employment.

Tibbetts, who has been described by relatives as having an “infectious laugh and beautiful smile,” was a psychology major at the Iowa City-based university and intended to go on to graduate school to become a psychiatrist, according to a 2018 Des Moines Register profile.

She had returned to her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, for the summer. She was reported missing when she did not return home after she had gone out for an evening run on July 18, 2018. That prompted a massive search by local authorities, family and members of the public. But it was Rivera who led authorities to Tibbetts’ lifeless body hidden in a cornfield 34 days later.

Rivera popped onto law enforcement authorities’ radar based on security camera footage that showed a dark Chevy Malibu passing back and forth several times in the vicinity of where Tibbetts had been seen on her run that evening. The Malibu was later linked to Rivera, who admitted to police that he had encountered the young woman, followed her in his car for a time while she ran, and then got out of his car to talk with her.

At that point, Rivera told authorities he “blacked out” and could not recall what happened until later, when he realized Tibbetts’ body was in the trunk of his car. He told authorities he drove into the cornfield and hid the body under corn leaves. After being guided to that location by Rivera, authorities discovered the body and identified her as Tibbetts. She had been stabbed to death.

The family’s and the community’s desperate search for Tibbetts had drawn national attention, but with the discovery of the young woman’s body and a Mexican immigrant accused of her murder, the story took an ugly turn and the focus shifted to the immigration debate as politicians from the president of the United States to the governor of Iowa and commentators on cable news and social media suggested that Tibbetts would be alive but for this nation’s failure to secure its borders.

“The search for Mollie is over, but the demand for justice has just begun,” Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said in a statement released after Tibbetts’ body was discovered. The Republican governor proclaimed that Iowans “are heartbroken, and we are angry. We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie’s killer.”

Two days later, then-Congressman Steve King of Iowa’s 4th District put the immigration angle in perhaps the starkest terms in a Twitter post referring to a video showing Tibbetts and 12 other alleged murder victims: “I know the faces of the parents of half the children pictured below. Every victim below would be alive today if we enforced our immigration laws. Leftists sacrificed thousands, including their own, on the altar of Political Correctness.”

At a political rally in West Virginia the evening Tibbetts’ death was announced, President Trump said, “You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman. Should’ve never happened.”

Looking back, Joe Enriquez Henry, political director of the League of Latin American Citizens of Iowa, said in an interview that the political posturing at the time was “a free-for-all. The attacks were vicious.”

Comments by the governor and Trump were “laser focused to target this hate to the Latin community,” he said. “It was terrible.” He ascribed the anti-immigrant sentiment stirred by those political leaders’ comments to graffiti painted on a street on the south side of Des Moines telling Mexican immigrants to “deport illegals.”

In a statement issued at the time, Enriquez Henry said, “What the governor sent out last week, with the press release blaming immigrants for the death of Mollie Tibbetts, was the wrong thing to do. That death was caused by an individual, not by a community.”

Enriquez Henry told Courthouse News that the only thing that prevented the situation from devolving to a “mob” scene at that time was a guest opinion piece published in the Des Moines Register by Mollie’s father, Rob Tibbetts, in which he decried those who “callously distort and corrupt Mollie’s tragic death to advance a cause she vehemently opposed.”

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