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Cristian Bahena Rivera, the Iowa farmworker accused of killing 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts in 2018, has been convicted of murder.
After over seven hours of deliberation, jurors in Scott County Court found Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old Mexican national who worked at a dairy farm, guilty of first-degree murder.
Bahena Rivera remained emotionless as the verdict was read. He will now be held without bail until his July 15 sentencing in Montezuma.
During the week-long trial, prosecutors alleged that on July 18, 2018, Bahena Rivera followed Tibbetts during her evening run near the Brooklyn, Iowa, home where she was staying and then stabbed her at least seven times. About a month later, Tibbetts’ body was found when Bahena Rivera directed authorities to the cornfield where he hid her.
“You’ve heard a case and evidence about a young woman who went for a run on July 18, 2018, and she never came home. Her life was brutally taken by the defendant,” Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown said during closing arguments on Thursday. “Five weeks, Mollie’s body laid in a cornfield. And you know who knew about that? One man. His name is Cristian Bahena Rivera. The evidence in this case shows the defendant and only the defendant murdered Mollie Tibbetts.”
Defense lawyers for Bahena Rivera, who came to the U.S. illegally, argued that the “partial confession” at the center of the prosecution’s case was coerced and came after their client’s 12-hour shift at the dairy farm, hours of questions from investigators, and a visit from federal immigration authorities.
After the verdict, Bahena Rivera’s defense attorneys, Chad and Jennifer Frese, expressed their dismay with the jury’s conclusion, saying they would appeal the decision. They insisted Bahena Rivera’s story has remained consistent since they first met.
“If we were going to make something up, we would have come up with something better,” Jennifer Frese told reporters.
At trial, the farmhand testified on his own behalf, telling jurors an elaborate alternative story to what happened the day Tibbetts was murdered. He said that after two armed men ambushed him at his trailer, they forced him to drive around and circle Tibbetts. Eventually, Bahena Rivera said that one of the men—armed with a knife—got out of the car for about 10 minutes and then tossed something in his trunk.
Later, he found Tibbetts’ body in his car and was forced to dispose of it because he was “scared” police would think he was involved in the crime, he testified.
“I picked her up and then I put her in the cornfield,” Bahena Romero said on Wednesday, adding that he covered her with corn stalks “because I didn’t want to leave her...I didn’t want her to be too exposed to the sun.”
Prosecutors slammed Bahena Rivera’s story on Thursday, telling jurors his testimony was a lie and “all evidence points at him.”
“There weren’t two other guys! That’s a figment of his imagination,” Brown said. “It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit.”
During closing arguments, Frese brought up testimony from Pamela Romero, the former Iowa police officer who got Bahena Rivera’s confession on Aug. 20, 2019. Romero testified that while Bahena Rivera initially denied any involvement in the Tibbetts’ case, he eventually admitted video surveillance footage showed his black Chevy Malibu appearing to circle her as she was running.
“They sent the most inexperienced officer they could to a marathon interrogation” in the high profile case, Frese said, “because she was a native Spanish speaker.”
Several hours after Bahena Romero was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Romero said he confessed to “blacking out” and murdering Tibbetts.
“If not the defendant, who had the motive to kill Mollie Tibbetts? He tells us the motive—anger. Anger’s one of the oldest motives in the history of human behavior,” Brown said Thursday.”Why is he angry? She has rebuked him, Mollie had threatened to call the police.”
Bahena Rivera claimed that he lied to Romero and the other investigators and “told them what they wanted to hear” because he thought “they would help him” after he was told there was evidence his phone was with Tibbetts’ phone and that her hair had been found in his car.
“For one, I was already very tired and I wanted to stop. And most importantly they told me to put myself in the family’s position and to think about if she was my daughter, what would I have done,” he said, describing how he relented and told police where he put Tibbetts’ body.
The Iowa State Medical Examiner concluded that Tibbetts’ death was a “homicide resulting from multiple sharp force injuries.” State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein testified last week that Tibbetts suffered from at least nine stab wounds all consistent with one weapon. Blood was also found in Bahena Rivera’s car that matched Tibbetts’ DNA, prosecutors said.
“Don’t fall for the possibilities. When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras,” Brown told jurors on Thursday. “The truth here is overwhelming.”
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