Man sentenced to life in prison for murder of Mollie Tibbetts in 2018
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – A man was sentenced to life in prison Monday for the stabbing death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, three years after she disappeared while jogging at night.
Judge Joel Yates sentenced Cristhian Bahena Rivera to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the mandatory sentence for first-degree murder in Iowa, which does not carry the death penalty. The 27-year-old former Labrador, who testified that he came to the United States illegally from Mexico as a teenager, has been incarcerated since his arrest in August 2018.
The ruling culminates a case that sparked anger over illegal immigration, fueled fears about random violence against solo runners, and took several notable twists during and after Bahena Rivera’s trial in May.
At the center of the case was Tibbetts, 20, who was remembered as a kind and bright young woman who rushed to help others and planned a career in child psychology.
He disappeared on a country road outside his hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, with a population of 1,700, while conducting one of his almost daily runs on July 18, 2018. Bahena Rivera took investigators to his body for a month after.
Family members and coworkers feared something was wrong when Tibbetts failed to show up for her summer job at daycare the next morning.
Hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officers searched for her for weeks, but found nothing. Investigators say they began targeting Bahena Rivera, who worked under an alias at a nearby dairy farm, after finding surveillance video from an owner showing her Chevy Malibu appearing to repeatedly pass Tibbetts as she ran.
After lengthy questioning, Bahena Rivera led authorities to a field where she had buried Tibbetts’ body under leaves and stems. Only her shiny running shoes were visible. An autopsy found that she had been stabbed multiple times.
Bahena Rivera told investigators that he approached Tibbetts because he found her attractive and that he got into a fight with her after she threatened to call the police. He said he later passed out and came to himself while driving with his body in his trunk.
Prosecutors suggested Bahena Rivera had a sexual motive, noting that Tibbetts was only wearing socks and a sports bra and that her legs were spread when her body was found. They built their case around the surveillance video, his partial confession, and the DNA evidence of Tibbetts’ blood in his trunk.
Bahena Rivera’s lawyers argued that her confession was false and had been coerced, and her client gave surprise testimony at trial sharing a different account. Bahena Rivera testified that two masked men abducted him from his trailer at gunpoint, forced him to drive while attacking Tibbetts, instructed him on where to dispose of his body, and told him to keep quiet or that his little daughter and ex-girlfriend would be delicate.
The defense tried to cast suspicion on several others who had been examined by investigators, including Tibbetts ‘boyfriend and a local MP who lives near where Tibbetts’ body was found.
Prosecutors called Bahena Rivera’s testimony a work of fiction and a unanimous 12-member jury found him guilty.
But two people immediately came forward to tell police that a 21-year-old man with a history of violence had confessed to them that he had killed Tibbetts. Other information emerged showing that a woman had told police she had been abducted after meeting an alleged sex trafficker at a Brooklyn gas station weeks before Tibbetts disappeared.
Yates delayed the July sentencing so the defense had time to investigate. Earlier this month, he denied Bahena Rivera’s motion for a new trial, saying the new information was unreliable and that he saw no reason to overturn the jury’s verdict. The defense plans to appeal.
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