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Bahena Rivera found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts

Cristhian Bahena Rivera reacts after the verdict is announced in his trial, Friday, May 28,...
Cristhian Bahena Rivera reacts after the verdict is announced in his trial, Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. A jury on Friday found Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who vanished while out for a run in 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)(Charlie Neibergall | AP)
Published: May. 28, 2021 at 1:46 PM CDT|Updated: May. 28, 2021 at 3:10 PM CDT
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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KCRG/KWQC) - Cristhian Bahena Rivera has been found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts.

The verdict was reached on Friday. The jury began deliberating at around 1:00 P.M. on Thursday. After nearly 8 hours of deliberation, a verdict was announced at 1:40 P.M.

Police said Tibbetts was attacked while out for a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa on July 18, 2018. Investigators found her body in a rural Poweshiek County field five weeks later.

Prosecution’s case:

A state prosecutor said home surveillance video, DNA analysis, and a partial confession were critical to proving Bahena Rivera stabbed and killed 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts.

Prosecutors brought 18 witnesses to the stand including investigators, the state medical examiner and a former police officer who interviewed Bahena Rivera.

Home surveillance video in Brooklyn showed what appeared to be a person running on July 18. Investigators said they believe it was Mollie Tibbetts. Moments later, they say a Chevy Malibu belonging to Bahena Rivera passed her multiple times. They pointed to the car’s distinctive chrome mirrors and door handles that made it stand out from other Malibus.

State prosecutors said Bahena Rivera admitted to finding Mollie Tibbetts attractive when he saw her out running. They said Bahena Rivera drove past her but circled back to look at her again. They also said Bahena Rivera admitted to chasing Tibbetts and became angry when she threatened to call the police.

FBI agent Kevin Horan testified Monday about data obtained using Mollie’s cell phone signal and nearby cell phone towers. Horan explained that data showed Tibbetts’ phone traveled eastbound out of Brooklyn - on a path similar to known paths Tibbetts took while jogging - during the evening hours of July 18, 2018. The data showed the phone moved at a pace that was consistent with someone running at a 10-minute-mile pace.

Then at 8:35 p.m., the phone began traveling southbound at speeds of up to 60 mph and stopped moving in rural Poweshiek County at 8:53 p.m., the phone then stopped transmitting data to any nearby towers.

During the investigation, former Iowa City Police Officer Pamela Romero was brought in to interview Bahena Rivera because she’s a native Spanish speaker. She says after showing him the surveillance footage of his vehicle near the runner - he began to confess.

“One of those times he parked his car behind her,” Romero said. “Ran up to her or jogged up to her. Came close to her, so she noticed him, she turns around and makes the attempt to use her cellphone to call the police. At this point, Mr. Rivera told me he got angry, and at that point they were fighting.”

Romero testified that Bahena Rivera said he blacked out at that point. She said he later remembered Tibbetts’ body was in his trunk. Romero said Bahena Rivera told her he left Tibbetts’ body in the cornfield before driving away.

Romero said as Bahena Rivera led her to where he left the body. Romero tried to get Bahena Rivera to give her more details about what happened.

“He tells me ‘I brought you here, didn’t I? So that means I did it. I don’t know how I did it,’” Romera testified.

The state medical examiner later testified that he found at least nine stab wounds on Mollie’s body during an autopsy.

Dr. Dennish Klein testified he was unable to obtain useful blood or fingerprints during the autopsy due to the decomposition of the remains located during the morning hours of August 21, 2018. Klein said the autopsy found nine definitive wounds, but that he suspected up to 12 total wounds. He said he determined Tibbetts’ cause of death to be multiple stab wounds and the manner of death to be homicide.

Forensic anthropologist Heather Garvin noted sharp-force wounds were evident on the remains during her testimony.

DCI criminalist, Amy Johnson, testified saying evidence from Bahena Rivera’s Chevy Malibu shows blood stains matching Tibbetts DNA.

Johnson also testified on the condition of Tibbetts’ body as she found it hidden in a cornfield. Johnson said Tibbett’s shorts, headband and underwear were located several feet away from her body.

The Defense:

Defense Attorney Jennifer Frese called for justice during opening statements on Tuesday.

“... Your heart should break for Mollie Tibbetts,” Frese said. “Your heart should break for her family. Mollie Tibbetts deserves justice. Her family deserves justice. But so does Cristhian Bahena Rivera.”

The defense often tried to make their case by pointing out inconsistencies in the testimonies of witnesses brought by prosecutors and by casting doubt on the DNA evidence found in the truck of Bahena Rivera’s car.

In cross-examination, the defense challenged Romero, the officer who interviewed Bahena Rivera, on the circumstances of his confession. Defense attorneys showed videos of Bahena Rivera appearing tired in the interview room, where Frese said he fell asleep during the 11-hour interview process, and went hours without food until given a sandwich around 9 p.m.

Frese also claimed Bahena Rivera was told false information, which potentially could have coerced him into a confession, including telling Bahena Rivera that police had his cell phone records. The defense asked Romero to explain the term “false confession” hinting that Bahena Rivera was coerced into a confession by being presented false information, such as hair being found in his car.

The defense also accused Romero of lying to Bahena Rivera in the interview, by making it clear to him, she was not there to discuss his illegal immigration status, even though he ended up being placed into custody by ICE agents during one of his breaks.

The defense also brought up names of a couple of different men with a history of violence toward women, who lived near the area Tibbetts’ body was found. One of the names brought up was Wayne Cheney. Cheney had entered guilty pleas for stalking in the past. DCI agent Vileta said Cheney was interviewed multiple times and law enforcement paid a lot of attention to him, but he was also ultimately eliminated as a suspect.

Defense attorneys also asked Mollie’s boyfriend Dalton Jack about his relationship with Mollie. He described Mollie as “happy, bubbly, goofy,” adding that she “just liked to have fun.” Dalton admitted to cheating on Mollie but said they had gotten past it. Dalton testified that he and Mollie had talked about breaking up a month prior to her disappearance and admitted that he was angry that Mollie wanted to move in with friends.

However, Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown said, based on their information, Dalton Jack was cleared as a suspect on July 25.

In a surprise move on Wednesday, defense attorneys called Cristhian Bahena Rivera to the stand. He testified that on July 18, 2018, the night Tibbetts went missing, he was taking a shower in his trailer at Yarrabee Farms (where he worked) and that, when he came out, he found two random men standing in his living room.

Bahena Rivera said the men were wearing sweaters, had their faces covered, and claimed the larger man had a gun and the smaller man had a knife.

He told the court that the three of them got into his black Chevy Malibu and instructed him to drive, with the larger man in the backseat and the man with the knife in the front seat.

Bahena Rivera said the men tried to crouch down in their seats as they drove through town and that the men directed him to drive past Tibbetts three or four times before instructing him to stop the car.

He then testified that the man with the knife got out of the car, was gone for 10-12 minutes before returning to the car, and that he heard the man in the backseat whispering to himself, saying “Come on, Jack.”

Jack is also the last name of Dalton Jack, Tibbetts’ boyfriend who has already testified twice in the trial. Bahena Rivera said he was not alleging Jack was involved. Earlier testimony placed Jack at work in Dubuque the day Tibbetts went missing, more than two hours away from the crime scene.

Once the man with the knife returned to the car, Bahena Rivera said they told him to drive 300 more meters before he was instructed to stop again and hand over his keys. He said that’s when both men got out of the car.

He testified he heard the men opening the trunk and then instructed him to drive to the cornfield where, weeks later, Bahena Rivera would lead investigators to Tibbetts’ body. He said the men left, and he got out of the car to check his trunk because he knew they had put something inside.

Bahena Rivera then testified that he saw Tibbetts’ body in his trunk, picked her up, put her in the cornfield, and covered her body with corn. He said he left Tibbetts phone and Fitbit by the side of the road and left, deciding not to tell anyone.

“I remembered they said if I did anything, they were going to do something to my family, my ex-girlfriend and my daughter,” Bahena Rivera told the court.

In cross-examination, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown questioned the details of Bahena Rivera’s new story.

Bahena Rivera said he left the cornfield alone, with the two mystery men running down the road away from the scene. He told the court he doesn’t know where they went, and he never saw them again.

Closing Arguments:

Closing arguments began Thursday morning in the trial.

The closing arguments came after prosecutors brought one final rebuttal witness Thursday morning. The judge then read the jury their instructions.

The rebuttal witness was Nick Wilson, a co-worker of Dalton Jack’s, who corroborated Jack’s story that he was in Dubuque the night of Tibbett’s disappearance.

Jack is Tibbetts’ boyfriend, who the defense has shown had cheated on Mollie Tibbetts, and questioned where he was located around the time Tibbetts disappeared.

Nick Wilson supervised Jack at Jasper Construction, as they worked a job in Dubuque the day Tibbetts disappeared.

Wilson said he is in charge of clocking Jack’s hours, of which he worked 12 and a half hours and finished at 7 p.m.

He then described Jack’s demeanor the next day. Wilson said Jack seemed kind of down the next day, not really speaking with the group. Wilson also said later that day Jack told him that he hadn’t spoken to Mollie in 18 hours, and he was worried about her.

During cross-examination, the defense questioned whether Wilson knew exactly where Jack was at specific times the night Tibbetts disappeared.

Prosecutor Scott Brown became passionate at times as he went through their evidence.

He described the four things his team had to prove in order to get a guilty conviction on first-degree murder and made these points.

“She was attacked brutally by him,” Brown said. “She was stabbed repeatedly by him. Can you imagine what that was like for her.”

“There wasn’t two other guys,” Brown went on to say. “That’s a figment of his [Bahena Rivera’s] imagination. All of the credible evidence in this case. All of it! Points at him.”

Defense Attorney Chad Frese called the loss of Tibbetts tragic, but said emotions don’t belong in the jury room during deliberations.

Frese made a point of saying the state must have enough evidence to prove Bahena Rivera did it.

Evidence Frese discussed included that no murder weapon was ever found and no evidence of premeditation or malice of forethought was ever presented. Frese also said the decision to have former officer Romero handle the interview with Bahena Rivera was a “colossal blunder,” because she was inexperienced.

Frese criticized the officers who interviewed Bahena Rivera when he confessed. Officers told him they were not from immigration. “When he didn’t give them what they wanted, they called immigration.”

The defense continued to point to Dalton Jack as a suspect in Tibbetts’ death. Frese said the state should have done more to prove Jack’s whereabouts the night Tibbetts went missing.

“Why on earth would you not just put up Dalton Jack’s phone records if he truly was in Dubuque?” Frese said.

Frese says more should have been done regarding the whereabouts of Dalton Jack.

“She was going to fly, she was outgrowing this man,” Frese said. “He was angry. He has a history of being a fighter. And they knew he was a problem.”

Prosecutor Scott Brown got a chance to give a rebuttal in which he defended Dalton Jack and the officers and investigators involved in the case.

“They ran Dalton Jack into the ground in this case.” Brown said.

Yet Brown went on to say there is no evidence that points to Dalton.

“What do you do when you’re not getting along with your girlfriend? You break up with her. You don’t take her out in the country and stab her to death, goodness,” Brown said.

Brown also pointed out that witnesses confirm that Dalton Jack was in Dubuque the night of Tibbetts’ disappearance, and could not have made the 2 hour drive there and back again to fit the timeline of available evidence.

Brown said all the evidence in this case points to one person, and no one else had a reason to kill Mollie Tibbetts. He was angry, he was rejected by Tibbetts and he admitted that he did it.

The Verdict and Aftermath:

With the first-degree murder conviction, Bahena Rivera is facing a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no parole.

His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Thursday, July 15th, at 9:30 A.M. at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma.

Trial recap:

DAY 1 RECAP

DAY 2 RECAP

DAY 3 RECAP

DAY 4 RECAP

DAY 5 RECAP

DAY 6 RECAP

CLOSING ARGUMENTS

The Verdict

Lawyer Reactions

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