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Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of murder in killing of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts

Farm worker guilty of killing Mollie Tibbetts
Farm worker guilty of killing Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts 01:38

Cristhian Bahena Rivera has been found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2018 abduction and stabbing death of a University of Iowa student who disappeared while out for a run.

The jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon following closing arguments from prosecutors and the defense team after a two-week trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport. Jurors read the verdict Friday afternoon after about seven hours of deliberations.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Scott Brown urged jurors to convict Rivera, saying there is "overwhelming evidence" that Rivera is guilty of murder in the death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts. Speaking to the media after the verdict was read Friday, prosecutors said Tibbetts' family was relieved by the verdict. Brown said he hopes the verdict will offer a sense of justice for the family.

"Even though we'd never have the ability to bring Mollie back, in the end, they know the person that did this to her is going to be held fully accountable," Brown said. 

Student Killed-Iowa
Cristhian Bahena Rivera steps down from the witness stand for a break, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in the Scott County Courthouse, in Davenport, Iowa. Bahena Rivera is on trial after being charged with first degree murder in the 2018 death of Mollie Tibbetts.  Kelsey Kremer / AP

In his closing argument, Brown called Bahena Rivera's testimony that two men kidnapped him at gunpoint and forced him to take part in the crime "a figment of his imagination," saying he concocted the story to try to explain away damning evidence.

Brown said the evidence shows that Bahena Rivera drove past Tibbetts while she was running on the evening of July 18, 2018, in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. He said Bahena Rivera found her attractive, tracked her down on a rural road and approached her as she ran.

Brown said that Tibbetts rebuked Bahena Rivera's advances and threatened to call the police, which made him angry.

"The way he reacts with that anger is to stab this young woman to death and to dump her body in a cornfield," said Brown, an assistant attorney general.

Mollie Tibbetts
This undated photo released by the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation shows Mollie Tibbetts. Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation via AP

Bahena Rivera knew for five weeks where he had hidden Tibbetts' body under corn stalks in a remote cornfield, as investigators worked to try to find out what had caused the "sweet young woman" to disappear, Brown said.

Speaking to the media after the verdict was read, defense attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese said Bahena Rivera's story about the two kidnappers hasn't changed since August of 2018.

"If we were going to make something up, we would have come up with something better than that," Jennifer Frese said.

The attorneys said they felt it was important for the jury to hear Bahena Rivera's story in his own words, but said they were never able to corroborate it. Jennifer Frese said she's disappointed in the verdict, but grateful for the time and attention given to the case. She said they plan to appeal.

During closing arguments Thursday, Chad Frese called Tibbetts a "spectacular young woman" and said her death was tragic, reports CBS station KCCI, but urged jurors not to allow emotions into the deliberation room. He called the investigators' case "sloppy" and said they were under an immense amount of pressure to close the case with national media attention and weeks with no leads.

"Some of this investigation was sloppy, but it really got sloppy when Cristhian Bahena Rivera was targeted," he said. "They closed a case, but they didn't solve a case."

Chad Frese said investigators "spoon-fed" a story to Bahena Rivera during his interrogation, and the defense suggested Tibbetts' boyfriend may have been involved. Earlier Thursday, prosecutors had called one rebuttal witness to establish an alibi for the boyfriend, Dalton Jack.

Jack worked on a bridge project in Dubuque, Iowa, until 7 p.m. on July 18, 2018, about an hour before Tibbetts was abducted and killed in their hometown of Brooklyn, his former supervisor Nick Wilson testified.

Wilson's testimony suggested that Jack would not have been able to be in Brooklyn when Tibbetts disappeared. Brooklyn is about 140 miles away from Dubuque, or more than a two-hour drive.

Wilson said that after Jack got off of work, he grilled and drank beer with other crew members at a hotel that evening and was at work the next morning at 5:30 a.m.

Speaking to media after the verdict, Brown said Jack was thoroughly investigated and ruled out as a suspect. "Dalton Jack did not do this," Brown said. "I want to put this out of everyone's mind."

Bahena Rivera may have entered the U.S. from Mexico illegally a decade ago, and his arrest inflamed anger over illegal immigration, with then-President Donald Trump calling him a killer who exploited lax immigration laws and Iowa's governor calling him a predator. The case also deepened anxieties about random violence against women.

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