On Tuesday a relative of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts appeared to publicly rebuke pundits and politicians — including President Donald Trump — who have used Tibbetts’ slaying as a talking point in ongoing debates about immigration in America.
“Please remember, Evil comes in EVERY color,” Billie Jo Calderwood wrote on Facebook Tuesday night, only a few hours after authorities announced that the 20-year-old Tibbetts’ remains had been found about a month after she disappeared from Brooklyn, Iowa.
Calderwood, described in various media reports as Tibbetts’ aunt, later shared another user’s post which stated, in part, “Please do not compound the atrocity of what happened to her by adding racism and hate to the equation. … Do not turn #molliesmovement into something ugly.”
She was apparently referencing the fact that Trump and others, such as the Iowa governor, have spoken out in political terms about Tibbetts’ suspected killer, 24-year-old Cristhian Rivera, whom authorities said is an undocumented immigrant.
At a rally on Tuesday, Trump invoked the killing in starkly electoral language.
“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,” he said. “Should’ve never happened. … The laws are so bad, the immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting it changed, but we have to get more Republicans.”
In a video posted Wednesday, Trump spoke even more directly, referencing his longstanding pledge to erect a southern border wall: “We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed. We need Republicans to do it, because the Democrats aren’t going to do it.”
Trump has routinely showcased examples of undocumented immigrants charged with violent crimes, riling up his base — though statistics cited by the Pew Research Center show immigrants do not commit crimes more often than native-born Americans.
Some of those following Tibbetts’ case online have used strident, even racist, language for Rivera.
His attorney has disputed law enforcement statements about his immigration status.
However, a manager at Yarrabee Farms, where Rivera had worked for four years, said he was employed there under another name, using an out-of-state government ID and matching Social Security card, according to the Associated Press.
Rivera “is not who he said he was,” the manager, Dane Lang, told the AP.
A U.S. immigration official further told the AP that they don’t have records showing he was legally admitted into the country.
Lang said an earlier statement from the farm that they had used the federal E-Verify system to confirm Rivera’s eligibility to work in the United States was incorrect, according to the AP. Instead, he said, they checked Rivera’s Social Security card against a Social Security Administration system.
It remains unclear when, exactly, Tibbetts was killed and how well she may have known her suspected murderer, if at all.
Authorities allege Rivera abducted and murdered her after they crossed paths while she was out on her run.
RELATED VIDEO: Man Accused in Murder of Mollie Tibbetts Appears in Court
While state authorities said Rivera was an undocumented immigrant, his attorney, Allan Richards, argued in a court filing Wednesday that is not the case, the Des Moines Register reports.
According to the paper, Richards filed a motion seeking a gag order in which he stated that Rivera “is in this jurisdiction legally.”
“Sad and Sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter … which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members,” Richards said in his motion.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
He reiterated that complaint during Rivera’s initial court appearance later Wednesday where he urged the judge to “exclude the media from these proceedings.”
“Portraying Cristhian as something that he isn’t, I view this as a political payback for what’s swirling around,” Richards said. He also noted that Rivera, who has not yet entered a plea, has no prior criminal record and is presumed innocent.
Richards said Rivera first came to the United States as a minor.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, echoed Trump’s rally statement in her comments at a daily press briefing on Wednesday, calling Tibbetts’ death “an unfortunate reminder of why we need to strengthen our immigration laws.”
Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s governor, reportedly said much the same in her own statement: “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 [to] bring justice to Mollie’s killer.”
In her post on Facebook Tuesday night, Calderwood wrote that “our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire ordeal by friends from all different nations and races. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.”
Second Cousin Also Speaks
Sam Lucas, identified as Tibbetts’ second cousin, on Tuesday posted a series of impassioned tweets replying to conservative activist and commentator Candace Owens. Owens had written, in part, “Mollie Tibbits [sic] was killed by an illegal immigrant. There will be ZERO outrage from Democrats and the spineless celebrities who march to their orders because they need open borders for votes.”
Lucas, who didn’t immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment, wasn’t happy about reading her cousin’s name in that context. (Calderwood also did not return a message seeking comment but told CNN: “I don’t want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics.” She stressed that she was not speaking on behalf of the family.)
“We are not so f—ing small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals,” Lucas wrote in tweet, that has since gone viral. “Now stop being a f—ing snake and using my cousins death as political propaganda. Take her name out of your mouth.”
“And FYI @RealCandaceO, my whole family is hurting right now and you’re not helping,” she continued in another tweet. “You’re despicable and this is so far from the loving and kind soul that Mollie was. My prayers go out to you in hopes that maybe you’ll become a better person. not hedging my bets tho.”
Owens responded: “I genuinely wish you healing, closure, and love. What happened to your second cousin is unspeakably terribly. I am not your enemy and am somewhat confused by your sentiments. God speed.”
Tibbetts, a 20-year-old psychology student entering her second year at the University of Iowa, vanished on July 18. She had been set to attend a destination wedding for her boyfriend’s brother about two weeks later.
Following confirmation of her death this week, Tibbetts’ family said in a brief statement that they were grief-stricken but grateful for the community’s support. They did not reference her accused killer.
“We know that many of you will join us as we continue to carry Mollie in our hearts forever,” they said.
• With reporting by CHRISTINE PELISEK