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#4 Disappearance, death of Mollie Tibbetts captures nation's attention | The Gazette Top Stories 2018

UI student who never returned from run becomes flashpoint in immigration debate

Mollie Tibbetts
Mollie Tibbetts
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On July 18, 18-year-old Mollie Tibbetts went for a run in Brooklyn, Iowa, as she had many times before, and never returned. Her disappearance quickly captured the nation’s attention.

About five weeks later, the rising University of Iowa sophomore’s body was found in a cornfield just south of Guernsey in Poweshiek County, and a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant was charged with her murder.

The Medical Examiner’s Office found that Tibbetts had been stabbed multiple times.

The arrest of Mexican national Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who authorities said entered the United States illegally and has lived in the Brooklyn area for about seven years, swiftly spurred calls for stronger immigration policies from state legislators. President Donald Trump used Tibbetts’ death as evidence of the need for his proposed border wall.

Rivera was charged with first-degree murder. His case still is going through the court system.

In the first few days of the investigation, hundreds of volunteers searched the fields around Tibbetts’ house, and within days, state and federal authorities joined the search — deploying 30 to 50 investigators, as well as analysts specializing in digital analysis and evidence collection.

Mitch Mortvedt, assistant director of Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation field operations, said investigators ran down more than 4,000 leads and led multiple searches of areas in and around Brooklyn using manpower, air, water and police dog units.

With the help of FBI forensic experts, investigators also examined Mollie’s digital footprint, which included sifting through data from her cellphone, social media accounts and Fitbit, a physical activity tracker.

Though Tibbetts’ story ended tragically, her death sparked a movement among runners — especially female runners — around the world, many of whom began dedicating their runs to Tibbetts using the #milesformollie hashtag on social media.

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Several local runners also adopted the hashtag, many of whom told The Gazette they would not let what happened to Tibbetts deter them from running.

When she runs, Cedar Rapids runner Megan Lemke, 34, told The Gazette that she often thinks of the young woman whose death inspired so many runners to stand up.

“We are not going to stop running, we are going to keep going,” she said.

• Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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