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Judge delays sentencing, will hear more evidence in Mollie Tibbetts case
Prosecution: Defense just on ‘fishing expedition’
A judge said Wednesday he’ll delay sentencing the man convicted of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts in 2018 after defense attorneys asserted authorities withheld information about investigations into a nearby sex trafficking ring the lawyers say could have been involved in the fatal stabbing.
Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, filed a motion late Tuesday asking 8th Judicial District Judge Joel Yates to delay the hearing on sentencing and on their motion for new trial based on evidence involving sex trafficking “trap houses and kidnappings” in or near Poweshiek County. The hearings were set for Thursday, but the defense lawyers said they needed more time to prepare.
They also asked the court to have a hearing on whether prosecutors violated their client’s rights by not disclosing evidence they say could be favorable to Bahena Rivera.
The prosecution, in a resistance filed late Wednesday, said the defense motion is “a confusing assortment of irrelevant and immaterial information and baseless allegations” of due process violations. There can’t be any violations because there never has been any evidence that Tibbetts was abducted for sex trafficking purposes, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown wrote.
The defense motion filed late Tuesday provides more information than did a related motion filed earlier about a suspected sex trafficker, including a search warrant of his home. The judge ordered Wednesday those documents be sealed, but only after many news media outlets, including The Gazette, had obtained the publicly available records.
Yates, in his ruling early Wednesday, said he will reschedule the sentencing and a hearing over a defense motion for a new trial for Bahena Rivera. But now he will hold a hearing Thursday focusing on defense claims the prosecution did not turn over or suppressed evidence.
At trial, Bahena Rivera testified in his own defense that he was kidnapped by two masked men who forced him to drive to where Tibbetts was jogging in Brooklyn, Iowa. One of them killed her, he testified, and put her body in the trunk of the car Bahena Rivera was driving.
A prosecutor argued the account was a “figment of his imagination.” The jury deliberated seven hours over two days before convicting Bahena Rivera, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, of first-degree murder.
In a motion for new trial, defense lawyers Jennifer and Chad Frese assert there are witnesses who can support Bahena Rivera’s version of events — that others were responsible for the fatal stabbing.
In the original motion, the Freses said an inmate came forward after seeing TV coverage of the trial and was interviewed May 26 — the same day the defense rested, but before the jury reached a verdict. The inmate said another inmate — identified in court papers only as “inmate 2” — detailed that he was staying in a “trap house” owned by a 50-year-old male involved in sex trafficking.
Inmate 2 admitted that in one incident he went to a second “trap house” owned by the man and saw Tibbetts bound and gagged. The original motion stated the 50-year-old man “devised a plan for them to stab Tibbetts and dump her body near a Hispanic male in order to make it appear that the Hispanic male committed the crime.” The defense motion asserts inmate 2 admitted killing Tibbetts.
In a separate incident, the motion states, a different person told the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office of an encounter with a man who had pulled a gun on the individual. The person told authorities the gunman had stated “‘that Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbetts because I raped her and killed her.’”
According to a search warrant referenced in the most recent defense filing, a 25-year-old woman in 2019 told authorities she was sexually assaulted and held against her will for days. She said in May 2018 she was dating a man and they met a 50-year-old man at a Casey’s in Brooklyn. The 50-year-old put gas in her car and instructed her to follow him to New Sharon, where he put more gas in her car and invited her to his house
The woman said they started talking a listening to music and later started smoking marijuana, according to the warrant. Later, the woman said she was injected with narcotics and passed out. She then woke up the next morning and couldn’t remember anything.
The woman said she was injected for days. She would wake up feeling “foggy, dazed and sexually violated.” She had bruises on her legs, arms and hips and described some as “restraint marks,” according to the warrant.
She wasn’t directly threatened but, according to the warrant, the man had a gun and she overheard him and his roommate talking about what would happen to her if she tried to leave. The woman said sometimes she heard other women’s voices in the house and wondered if they were also being held against their will but she didn’t know.
The woman eventually escaped with help from her ex-boyfriend and his sister, the warrant said. She said she hadn’t seen the man since.
This 50-year-old hasn’t been arrested or charged in connection with this woman’s report, but he was charged earlier this month in federal court with possessing an unregistered sawed-off shotgun on May 29 in Iowa County. He remains in jail pending trial.
According to the motion, the prosecution became aware of information that could be relevant to the Tibbetts killing but didn’t disclose to the defense there also were unresolved abduction investigations pending at the time the inmate tipped them off to the new information.
The defense asked the court to order the prosecution to produce any evidence involving any sex trafficking investigation involving the 50-year-old man or any other residents of Poweshiek or adjoining counties; any pending investigations of the man during the time that Tibbetts’ went missing; and any pending investigations of inmate 2.
Prosecutors, in their response, said they didn’t learn of information concerning this issue until Mount Pleasant Correctional Institution inmate Arne Maki came forward with a statement about “inmate 2” on May 26 as Bahena Rivera’s trial was still in progress.
When authorities learned of the information, “regardless of its lack of credibility,” they promptly provided it to the defense the same day, the response states.
Regardless, assertions in the defense motion contradict Bahena Rivera’s statements to police and his testimony at trial, prosecutor Brown notes. The defendant never mentioned Tibbetts being taken to a “trap house.” Nor did he mentioned any unmasked men or anyone fitting the description of a 50-year-old man as being involved.
The defense had already dismissed the gist of this sex trafficking information during the trial because it was inconsistent with Bahena Rivera’s testimony, Brown said. Further, Brown said, the defense declined the prosecution’s offer to send agents to Mount Pleasant to pursue the tip and delay the trial for further investigation.
“This request is unreasonable and is a ‘fishing expedition’ on unrelated matters without relevance or material connection to the present case,” the prosecution stated.
Bahena Rivera was convicted by a Scott County jury in May of first-degree murder. During trial, prosecutors presented home surveillance video showing a Chevrolet Malibu traced to Bahena Rivera driving by Tibbetts as she jogged that July 2018 night. Police recounted how he had told them during questioning that he had approached her, but could not remember what happened next. Her DNA was found in the trunk of his car and he led authorities to a cornfield where her body was found.
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