Cristhian Bahena Rivera has been arrested in the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. The 20-year-old jogger from Brooklyn, Iowa, was found dead the morning of August 21, more than a month after she went missing in a case that drew nationwide attention.
Rivera confessed to killing Tibbetts and has been charged with first-degree murder, police said. He is a resident of rural Poweshiek County, Iowa, and has lived in the area for about four to seven years while working at a local dairy farm, according to police. He faces a penalty of life in prison without parole. Rivera, a 24-year-old Mexican citizen, is being held on an immigration detainer and police said they confirmed with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations that he is an “illegal alien,” DCI Special Agent Richard Rahn said at a press conference.
Investigators first approached Rivera on August 20 and police said he was cooperative and was willing to talk about what happened. According to police, surveillance video from Brooklyn residents helped them identify Rivera. His car was spotted on the video along with Tibbetts, who could be seen running with Rivera’s car behind her, according to police.
Tibbetts was last seen the evening of July 18 when she went for a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. She had been staying at her boyfriend’s brother’s house, where she was dog-sitting while her boyfriend, Dalton Jack, his brother and his brother’s fiancee were out of town, according to police and her family. She texted her mother that night and sent Jack a Snapchat message, but was not heard from again. When she didn’t show up for work at a day camp on July 19, she was reported missing. Local authorities from the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office were soon joined in the search by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations and the FBI.
Brooklyn is a city of about 1,400 people in eastern Iowa, located midway between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. The community rallied around the Tibbetts family as the search for Mollie stretched to over a month. Tibbetts spent part of her childhood in the Oakland, California, area, where her father still lives, and then moved to her mother’s native Iowa along with her two brothers. She graduated from Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom High School in 2017 and was about to enter her sophomore year at the University of Iowa, where she was studying psychology.
“Please remember, Evil comes in EVERY color. 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,” Billie Jo Calderwood, Mollie’s aunt, wrote on Facebook.
The Iowa Attorney General’s area prosecution division will be prosecuting the case, police said at a press conference. A complaint and affidavit in the case is set to be released Tuesday with further information on the allegations against Rivera. He is being held at the county jail on $5 million bail.
Rivera made his first court appearance on Wednesday. His attorney said in a court filing that the government is incorrect in its statements that Rivera is in the country illegally. Attorney Allan Richards wrote in the filing that his client is in Iowa legally and asked for a gag order, citing President Donald Trump and other Republicans statements about Rivera’s immigration status.
“Sad and sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members,” Richards wrote, according to the Des Moines Register. Prosecutors cited Rivera’s immigration status in asking him to be held on bail, but exact details about his status have not been made public.
This report will be updated with more information about the suspect as it is made available. Here is what we know so far about Cristhian Rivera and the death of Mollie Tibbetts:
1. Rivera Led Investigators to the Corn Field Where Tibbetts Was Found Dead in a Cornfield, Concealed by Corn Stalks, Police Say
Mollie Tibbetts’ body was found in Powieshiek County, Iowa, police said at a press conference. Cristhian Bahena Rivera led them to Tibbetts’ body after he was interviewed about her, according to police. Her body was found in a corn field, where her remains were covered up by corn stalks, according to police. An autopsy is scheduled for August 22 and a cause of death has not yet been released.
Her body was located in a rural part of Powieshiek County, about 12 miles away from her hometown of Brooklyn. The body was found on 460th Avenue off Highway 21, southeast of Brooklyn, between Guernsey and Deep River. Police blocked off a gravel road in an area near five farms. The road had been closed since at least 5 a.m. local time, farmers told KCCI-TV.
The state medical examiner’s office arrived at the scene about 10 a.m., the news station reports.
Police said they had searched throughout the county, but had not been able to locate her because of the cornstalks that were on top of her. “We just weren’t able to locate her,” police said, until Rivera led them to her.
“These are hard,” DCI Special Agent Richard Rahn said Tuesday at a press conference. “We get to know the family, we get to know Mollie, we just spoke with the family and I told them that they raised a great daughter. She was a phenomenal individual and so we are saddened for the family. It is difficult on the investigators, however that is what we’re here to do and we just try to do it the best we can. We’re just glad we were able to locate him, get him charged and hopefully come out with a successful conclusion and that being a conviction.”
Rahn said Tibbetts’ family is struggling, but they have a great support system, including from the Brooklyn community, who have been a major help during the investigation and in supporting the family.
“Our hearts go out to the Tibbetts family and to the Brooklyn community. It is a loss for all of us,” Poweshiek County Sheriff Tom Kriegel told KCCI-TV. “We appreciate the support for law enforcement community in their commitment to this investigation, and we thank the Brooklyn community for their support for the investigation.”
2. He Told Police He Saw Tibbetts While She Was Jogging & Approached Her, Running Near Her Before She Threatened to Call the Police Because He Was Following Her
Police said Cristhian Rivera told investigators during an interview that he saw Mollie Tibbetts running and was then able to approach her. “While he was interfacing with her, he tells us he ran alongside her or behind her,” DCI Special Agent Richard Rahn said at the press conference Tuesday.
At one point she took out her phone and told him he needed to leave her alone or she was going to call the police, and then she took off running. He told police he chased her down and at some point he “blacks out,” and came to “near an intersection” where he “then placed Mollie.” That occurred at 385th Street in rural Poweshiek County.
Rahn said Rivera “followed her around, circled around a couple times, located her and then began to interface with her at some point and time on 385th Street.” He said her running route is believed to have been that road. Police obtained data from her electronic devices, including her cellphone and a FitBit fitness tracker, which they say assisted in the investigation.
According to court documents, Rivera told police he “blocked” his “memory” from the moments after Tibbetts threatened to call police. Detectives said in the affidavit that Rivera became “very upset” when talking about what happened at that point and said he “doesn’t remember anything after that until he came to at an intersection.”
Rivera said he was driving and made a U-turn, went back to entrance to a field and drove up a driveway to a cornfield, according to the court documents. He then noticed there was an ear piece from headphones in his lap and “that is how he realized he put (Tibbetts) in the trunk,” police wrote in the affidavit. “He went to get her out of the trunk and he noticed blood on the side of her head,” police wrote.
Rivera “described the female’s clothing, (what) she was wearing including an ear phone or head phone set and (Rivera) further described during the interview that he dragged Tibbetts on foot from his vehicle to a secluded location in a cornfield. Rivera described he put her over his shoulder and took her about 20 meters into the cornfield and he left her covered in some corn leaves and that he left her there face up.” Rivera said he was able to use his phone to determine the route he drove from Brooklyn, but later guided police to the area where Tibbetts was found from memory, according to police.
Tibbetts had last been seen about 7:30 p.m. on July 18 by a neighbor while jogging in Brooklyn, according to police. She sent a Snapchat message to her boyfriend, Dalton Jack, which he opened about 10 p.m., but it was not clear when she sent it. “Just a selfie with a caption like any other normal snapchat, but the background looked like she was indoors,” he said. Jack was ruled out as a suspect early on in the investigation.
3. Rivera’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Facebook Friends With Mollie Tibbetts & Police Say He Told Investigators He Had Seen Her Before the Day She Was Abducted
Police said Cristhian Rivera is an undocumented immigrant and has lived in the Poweshiek County, Iowa, area for about four to seven years. He is originally from Mexico, but police did not say when he moved to the United States, according to The Associated Press.
Rivera is originally from Guayabillo, Guerrero, Mexico. He studied at Preparatoria 35 in Guerrero, according to his Facebook page.
On June 15, 2013, Rivera posted on Facebook: “First Met Iris Monarrez. El mejor día de mi vida.” This translates to: “The best day of my life.” Monarrez also posted about Rivera on her own page. He also posted a photo of a baby and tagged Monarrez in the picture. Between 2013 and 2015, Monarrez had made multiple posts on Facebook about Rivera and photos showing them together.Monarrez is friends on Facebook with Mollie Tibbetts, Scott Tibbetts, and Jake Tibbetts. Jake and Scott are Mollie’s brothers.
Exactly how Monarrez and Tibbetts knew each other is not confirmed, but a few high school newsletters indicate that they may have gone to the same high school together, although they weren’t the same age. It’s not clear if they knew each other well or if Rivera ever actually met Tibbetts through Monarrez. It is also not clear when Monarrez and Rivera stopped dating, but they had not mentioned each other on Facebook in several years.
Rivera told investigators he had seen Tibbetts before, according to Rahn. He did not provide any other details about that previous interaction or whether she knew him. Rahn said Rivera “kept to himself,” and said they were still looking into his background. It is not clear if he had ever been arrested previously or if he was involved in immigration proceedings.
4. Rivera Worked for a Family Farm Tied to a Prominent Iowa Republican & the Company Says He Was Vetted Through the Federal Government’s ‘E-Verify’ System
Cristhian Bahena Rivera worked at Yarrabee Farms for four years and was an employee in good standing, the farm told The Associated Press. The company told The AP it was shocked to learn Rivera had been charged in Tibbetts’ death.
Yarrabee Farms is a “small family farm” owned by Dane Lang and his father, Craig Lang, a farmer who is a longtime prominent Republican politician and official in Iowa. Craig Lang served as the president of the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs the state’s public universities. He lost a primary in June in the state GOP’s race for agriculture secretary.
“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Mollie Tibbetts. This is a profoundly sad day for our community. All of us at Yarrabee Farms are shocked to hear that one of our employees was involved and is charged in this case,” the company’s statement said. “This individual has worked at our farms for four years, was vetted through the government’s E-Verify system and was an employee in good standing. On Monday, authorities visited our farm and talked to our employees. We cooperated fully with their investigation.”
The company added that it follows “all laws related to verifying employees are legal to work in the United States, and we regularly seek outside counsel to ensure we stay up-to-date on employment law matters. We keep records on all employees and have shared that information with authorities.”
Yarabee Farms added that the “appreciate” the work of law enforcement and will continue to cooperate with the investigation as it goes forward.
Iowa DCI Special Agent Rahn said at the press conference, “I know that he was working, and beyond that I’m not sure what he was doing coming and going. … He was employed here, but beyond that I don’t have any additional information.”
His reported immigration status led to outrage from Republicans, including the president and Iowa’s governor. President Donald Trump talked about the case at a rally in West Virginia hours after Rivera’s arrest:
“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,” Trump said. “Should’ve never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad. The immigration laws are such a disgrace, we’re getting them changed, but we have to get more Republicans. We have to get ’em.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who met with Tibbetts’ family last week, tweeted, “Heartbroken by the news about Mollie Tibbetts. Mollie was an amazing young woman and we are praying for her parents, brothers & friends in this time of unimaginable grief. We commend the swift action by local, state, & federal investigators working in Iowa in apprehending an illegal immigrant, who’s now charged with first-degree murder. Now, justice will be served. We will never forget Mollie Tibbetts.”
Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley issued a joint statement saying:
We are deeply saddened that this bright, young woman’s life was cut short. Our heart goes out to the family and friends of Mollie Tibbetts. No family should ever have to endure such a tragedy, especially one that could have been prevented. We are thankful for the hard work of Governor Reynolds and federal, state and local law enforcement as they continue to find answers for Mollie’s family and the American public and bring the killer to justice. As Governor Reynolds said, ‘our immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community.’ Too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws. We cannot allow these tragedies to continue.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issue a statement saying, “We are all suffering over the death of Mollie, knowing that it could have been our own daughter, sister or friend. I spoke with Mollie’s family and passed on the heartfelt condolences of a grieving state. Over the past month, thousands of Iowans searched and prayed for Mollie’s safe return. Now, we are called to come together once again to lift up a grieving family.”
Reynolds added, “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 bring justice to Mollie’s killer.”
In court on Wednesday, Rivera’s attorney said the government has “weighed in at the highest levels of predisposition that this young man Cristhian is guilty. But in our system of justice he is entitled to that presumption of innocence.”
In a motion for a gag order in the case filed Wednesday morning, attorney Allan Richards said Rivera has been living in Iowa legally.
“The government is promoting the idea that Cristhian is not present in this jurisdiction legally,” Richards wrote, adding, “the government’s position of promotion of this idea will prevent any notion of Cristhian’s right to a fair trial.” He added, “Sad and Sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members.”
Richards wrote, “Former leader of Iowa’s educational system (The Iowa Board of Regents), Craig Lang, has verified that Cristhian is in this jurisdiction legally. Craig Lang supports Cristhian’s right to be in this jurisdiction, and for the Government to support any other idea of status publicly flies in the face of such statements.”
Richards argued, “Cristhian has a right to due process as to his status,” and “the government knows Cristhian has legal status.”
“Cristhian has complied with his documented status since arriving in the U.S.A as a minor,” Richards wrote. “Cristhian dedicated his efforts toward honorable work in the dairy industry, has been trusted in his work with the safety of our very important milk supply to Iowa, the various states and other notions. Cristhian deserves the court’s protection as his characterization before a jury pool.”
In court, Richards said the media coverage has portrayed Rivera as “something that he isn’t. In some ways I view this as a political payback for what’s swirling around in terms about the media. And the media is feeding into it. They have not made efforts as far as I can see to give justice or any type of leaning toward his presumption of innocence.”
5. Police Say Rivera ‘Seemed to Be Drawn’ to Tibbetts on the Day He ‘Chose to Abduct’ & Then Kill Her
Police said at a press conference that during a canvass of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Mollie Tibbetts had last been seen they obtained surveillance video from a resident. According to police, the video showed a car, a black Chevrolet Malibu, that they were able to trace to Cristhian Rivera.
With that video, police were able to track Rivera’s pattern and the routes he took, and find video of Tibbetts running, Special Agent Richard Rahn said. They were able to determine that Rivera was one of the last people to have seen Tibbetts running, according to Rahn.
“The video was from the evening of July 18, 2018,” police said in the affidavit. “After review of the video it was determined that Mollie Tibbetts was running near the area of Boundary and Middle Streets when a dark-colored Chevy Malibu was in the same vicinity. The dark colored Chevy Malibu was seen numerous times driving back and forth in the area.”
When he was questioned on August 20, Rivera “admitted to making contact with a female running in Brooklyn and that he pursued her in his vehicle in an area east of Brooklyn” in Poweshiek County, Iowa. “Rivera stated he parked the vehicle, got out and was running behind her and along side of her. Rivera stated she grabbed her phone and said ‘Im gonna call the police.’ Rivera said he then panicked and got mad.” Rivera claims he does not call what happened next until he “came to” and was driving his car and realized her body was in the trunk of his car. He then told police he dumped Tibbetts body in the cornfield.
Police said they received the video about a week or two ago and spent hours watching it to find Tibbetts on the recording and then see if there was anything suspicious following her. They were able to come up with a timeline using that video. Rahn said they know she was abducted on July 18, but he did not provide any information about when she was killed. He said the autopsy will help determine that.
“I can’t really speak about the motive, I can just tell you it seemed that he followed her and seemed to be drawn to her on that particular day. And for whatever reason, he chose to abduct her,” Rahn told reporters. “I can’t speak to it other than that.”
You can read the charging documents in the case below:
Rahn said they approached Rivera to interview him on August 20 and he talked to them without incident. “He was very compliant,” Rahn said. “He was willing to talk to us. There was no fight or struggle of any kind.”
Rahn said the investigation is ongoing, but at this point Rivera is the only person to be charged. He said they were still speaking to other people and looking to finalize details about what happened.
More than $400,000 in reward money was raised for information leading to Mollie Tibbetts being found as the case captured the hearts and minds of people all across the country. Greg Willey, the vice president of Crime Stoppers of Central Iowa, told The Associated Press the money would be used to catch and convict a suspect or suspects in Tibbetts’ death. It is not clear if any of the reward money has been claimed as a result of the discovery of Tibbetts’ body and the arrest of a suspect.
Police were inundated with tips throughout the investigation and set up a website, findingmollie.iowa.gov, because of the extensive interest in the case.
“We regularly had 30-40 investigators devoted to this investigation since Molly disappeared,” said DCI Special Agent in Charge Richard Rahn said in a statement. “Without that kind of support from our fellow law enforcement officers, we could not have made the progress we did. The Poweshiek County Sheriff and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were valued partners in leading the investigation, and many other agencies contributed resources throughout the past five weeks. We thank the Tibbetts family for their support to us, and we hope that they will continue to have the support of their community and the nation in the coming weeks and months.”
Mollie Tibbetts’ aunt, Kim Calderwood, told the Des Moines Register that she remained hopeful because she knew her niece. “She’s strong and sassy and a fighter and stubborn and she is not a quitter,” Calderwood told the newspaper before Tibbetts was found dead.
She added she that Tibbetts was “a “beautiful, positive girl.” Tibbetts graduated from Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom High School in 2017, according to her Facebook page. Her aunt told the Register that Tibbetts was on the debate team, ran track and was involved in her local Catholic church, St. Bridget Church.
Calderwood told WOI-TV, “This is not like her at all. She’s a very responsible and conscientious young woman.”
Laura Calderwood told The Gazette her daughter loved life at school, “She’s very intelligent and she loved college and really enjoyed studying. She loves life and lives it to the fullest. She is very happy and social, she loved to sing and perform and she loves caring for the kids at the day care where she works.”
Tibbetts’ mother, Laura Calderwood, lives in Iowa, while her father, Robert Tibbetts, lives in Oakland, California. A family member posted on Facebook that Mollie had recently returned home from a visit with her family in California. She is also survived by two brothers, Jake and Scott and was the middle child in her family.
“It’s exhausting, I don’t know where she is, I don’t know if she’s safe,” Tibbett’s mother Laura Calderwood told KGO-TV. Mollie spent some of her childhood living in the Bay Area, where her father still lives. Her father was in Iowa helping in the search, but returned home a day before his daughter’s body was found.
Her disappearance rattled the small town of Brooklyn.
“We’re a close-knit community and I couldn’t even imagine this happening to one of my kids. We love Mollie. They’re family and we look after each other,” Carla Kriegel told the Globe Gazette.
“A daughter to anybody in this community is a daughter to everybody. We all hope the same effort would be made toward our own children,” town resident Joy Vanlandschoot, who has helped with the efforts, told the Des Moines Register.
Melissa Shivers, the Vice President for Student Life at the University of Iowa, said in a statement, “We are deeply saddened that we’ve lost a member of the University of Iowa community. Our thoughts are with Mollie Tibbetts’ family, friends, and classmates Losing a fellow student and member of our Hawkeye family is difficult. President Harreld and I share in your grief and encourage you to reach out if you are in need of support.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of the suspect’s name from Christian Bajina Rivera to Cristhian Bahena Rivera.