IOWA CITY, Iowa – A farm laborer was found guilty Friday in the abduction and killing of an Iowa college student who vanished while out for a run in 2018 and will face life behind bars for a crime that shocked the nation.
A 12-member jury unanimously found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the attack on University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, who was described as so kind and friendly that investigators could find no one who spoke badly about her.
Bahena Rivera, who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico as a teenager, will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Judge Joel Yates ordered Bahena Rivera, who has been in custody since his August 2018 arrest, to be held without bond pending a July 15 sentencing hearing.
The verdict came after a two-week trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, in a case that fueled public anger against illegal immigration and concerns about random violence against women. The jury, which included nine white members and three of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish descent, deliberated for seven hours on Thursday and Friday.
“This was the verdict that the evidence demanded,” said one of the prosecutors, Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver, who said such violent crime almost never happens in his county of 18,000 people.
Klaver said the verdict was an emotional moment for the family of Tibbetts, calling the outcome a “weight off of everyone's shoulders." Several of her relatives, including her mother, had watched the proceedings daily in a conference room across from the courtroom, where the public was banned due to COVID-19 protocols.
Bahena Rivera’s defense attorneys, Chad and Jennifer Frese, said they were disappointed in the verdict and would appeal. They said their client had consistently since 2018 told them the story he shared on the witness stand about two masked men that he claims were responsible, even though prosecutors had never previously heard that claim.
Jennifer Frese said that if the testimony had been coached by defense lawyers, “we would have come up with something better than that.”
“We can tell you that getting to know Cristhian Bahena, we are very surprised that he would be the kind of person that would commit a crime like this,” Chad Frese said. “He is nothing but a soft-spoken, respectful, kind person.”
They said they would renew their arguments that Bahena Rivera’s statements to police were coerced and should be suppressed, along with the discovery of Tibbetts’ body that followed.
Tibbetts, who ran track and cross country in high school, never returned home after going for a routine run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa on the evening of July 18, 2018. She was reported missing the next day after she didn’t show up for her summer job at a daycare, where she was working after completing her freshman year. Tibbetts had hoped to one day become a child psychologist.
Her disappearance from the town of 1,700 was immediately deemed suspicious, and local, state and federal agencies joined hundreds of volunteers in a highly publicized search for her.
Investigators say they broke the case open nearly a month later after obtaining surveillance video from a homeowner that shows, for a split second, a shadowy figure that appears to be Tibbetts running in the distance. The video shows a black Chevy Malibu with chrome mirrors and door handles driving past 20 seconds later, and back and forth several times in the next 20 minutes.
A sheriff’s deputy spotted Bahena Rivera, who worked at a local dairy farm, driving the distinctive vehicle the next day. During a lengthy interrogation that began Aug. 20, 2018, Bahena Rivera said that he drove past Tibbetts while she was running and turned around to get another look because he found her attractive.
He eventually said that he approached Tibbetts and fought with her after she tried to get away and threatened to call police. He claimed that he then “blacked out” but remembered driving with her body in the trunk of his car. He led investigators in the early morning hours of Aug. 21 to a remote cornfield where they found her badly decomposed body hidden under corn stalks.
An autopsy found that Tibbetts died of sharp force injuries from several stab wounds to her head, neck and chest. DNA testing showed that her blood was found in the trunk of the Malibu, but investigators never found the murder weapon.
Prosecutor Scott Brown praised the investigators whose persistence helped solve the case, noting they faced criticism during the trial from the defense.
He said in a closing argument Thursday that Bahena Rivera killed Tibbetts out of anger after she rebuked him. He said Bahena Rivera also had a sexual motive, noting that Tibbetts was found partially naked with her legs spread when her body was found.
During dramatic testimony Wednesday that surprised prosecutors, the 26-year-old Bahena Rivera denied that he killed Tibbetts. He claimed publicly for the first time that two masked men took him at gunpoint from his trailer, forced him to drive as one of them killed Tibbetts on a rural road and directed him to a rural area where he left her body. Bahena Rivera said the men threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend and young daughter if he spoke out.
Bahena Rivera’s defense suggested one of the men may have been Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, who admitted during hours of difficult testimony that he had an affair with another woman and past anger problems. But police said they cleared Jack, who had bought an engagement ring and planned to soon propose marriage to Tibbetts, after establishing that he was out of town for work when Tibbetts vanished.
Then-President Donald Trump, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and other Republicans had cited the vicious crime ahead of the 2018 midterm elections to call for harsher policies to deter illegal immigration. But their efforts eventually stopped after Tibbetts’ parents said the slaying should not be used to advance a political agenda that Tibbetts would have opposed.
In a sign of how the case remains politicized, GOP U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa released a statement on Friday morning praising the guilty verdict as a just outcome, even though jurors were still deliberating at the time. Her staff quickly apologized for the error but re-released the statement after the verdict was announced.