A man accused of killing 20-year-old Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts is in the country legally, his attorney claims in a court filing, disputing police and prosecutors statements that the suspect is an undocumented immigrant.
At a press conference announcing the arrest of Cristhian Bahena Rivera on Tuesday, police said Rivera was an “illegal alien,” saying they confirmed his status with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations. The federal government put an immigration detainer on Rivera to ensure he was not released from custody. Several Republican politicians issued statements on Tuesday and Wednesday about Rivera’s immigration status, including President Donald Trump and the White House, who said Tibbetts was killed by an “illegal immigrant” and would be alive if the country had tougher immigration laws.
In a motion for a gag order in the case filed Wednesday morning, attorney Allan Richards said Rivera, who works at a dairy farm owned by a prominent Iowa Republican, 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.”
Lang’s family owns the Yarrabee Farms, where Rivera has been working for the past four years. In a statement issued Tuesday night, the farm said Rivera was cleared through the government’s E-Verify system.
Richards argued, “Cristhian has a right to due process as to his status,” and “the government knows Cristhian has legal status.” According to his Facebook page, Rivera is originally from Mexico.
“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.”
You can read the full motion below:
During Rivera’s first appearance in court on Wednesday, the judge did not rule on the gag order request. The judge did allow for media coverage, including TV cameras, of the hearing. Rivera is being held on $5 million bail on a first-degree murder charge.
In court, Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown referenced Rivera’s immigration status while asking for a higher bail for the suspect.
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.”
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.”
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 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.”