Public Safety

Brooklyn and Iowa City mourn Mollie Tibbetts' death; suspect appears in court for first time

Accused killer ordered held on $5 million cash-only bail

Some attendees wear shirts which read, “Keep the faith. Keep Mollie's faith.” during a prayer service for Mollie Tibbetts at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Some attendees wear shirts which read, “Keep the faith. Keep Mollie's faith.” during a prayer service for Mollie Tibbetts at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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BROOKLYN, Iowa — From the pews of St. Patrick’s Church in Brooklyn to a park on the University of Iowa campus, hundreds cried, hugged, prayed and remembered Mollie Tibbetts, trying to make sense of a tragedy that made no sense.

“I don’t know what words to say,” Father Corey Close said during a prayer service Wednesday at St. Patrick’s. “We see tragedies happen all around the world … and when they do, we say a prayer and we feel sorry, but then we move on as if it didn’t affect us, and we always think that it never will. But right now we are in the midst of tragedy and it very clearly affects us.”

At nearly the same time, mourners gathered near the Iowa Memorial Union, cupping candles against the wind and trying to find solace in the words of Jake Tibbetts, her brother.

“Remember this as the time a country came together for one girl,” he said. “One girl who loved everyone. One girl who loved everything and wanted the best for everyone.”

The nearly simultaneous services in two cities — one where Tibbetts lived and one where she had gone to college — capped an emotional day.

Her accused killer, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, who authorities said had been in the Brooklyn area illegally for years, sat mostly silent in a courtroom, in jail stripes and shackled at the ankles, as a judge ordered him held on a $5 million cash-only bail.

Later, the farmers who had hired him four years earlier thinking he was eligible to work legally reported they have received scores of threats since his arrest and immigration status gained national attention.

Father Close, who led the Mass in Brooklyn, said now is the time to hold tight to faith.

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“I’m sure many of us would in a heartbeat give our lives for Mollie’s, and the fact that we’ll all never see her again — we’ll never see her smile again or know her friendship. … But this is when we turn to the Lord and let him carry us through the pain,” he said.

And he preached forgiveness, asking the congregation to turn away from hate and ask God for the ability to forgive.

IMMIGRATION DEBATE

Despite his attorney’s objection, Rivera appeared for an initial court hearing Wednesday at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma.

He is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Tibbetts, 20, a rising sophomore at the UI who disappeared July 18 from Brooklyn. Her body was found Tuesday in a cornfield in rural Poweshiek County after investigators said Rivera led them there. Authorities have offered no motive in the killing.

During the hearing, defense attorney Allan Richards asked the court to bar extensive media coverage — namely news cameras — from the proceeding, arguing the media’s presence infringed on the right to a fair trial.

In a pair of motions filed that morning, Richards lamented the media’s focus on Rivera’s immigration status and noted that even President Donald Trump had commented on his client Tuesday night during a campaign rally in West Virginia. Richards requested the judge instill a gag order, barring any discussion of his client's immigration status.

“The government is promoting the idea that Cristhian is not present in this jurisdiction legally,” he wrote. “The … promotion of this idea will prevent any notion of Cristhian’s right to a fair trial.”

Noting the president’s remarks, Richards added, “Sad and sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members.”

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The motion also contends Rivera is in the United States legally, stating that he arrived as a minor and has since “complied with his documented status.”

The judge denied Richards’ requests and scheduled a preliminary hearing for Aug. 31.

HIRED ON A FARM

During a news conference Tuesday, Rick Rahn, special agent in charge with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, said Rivera was an undocumented immigrant who has been living and working in Poweshiek County for about seven years.

Nearly four of those were spent working at Yarrabee Farms, said farm manager and co-owner Dane Lang.

Rivera’s attorney pointed to his client’s employment at Yarrabee Farms as confirmation of his legal status, saying in his motion that Dane’s father, Craig Lang — a prominent Iowa republican and co-owner of the dairy business — “supports Cristhian’s right to be in this jurisdiction.”

However, during a news conference later Wednesday, Dane and Craig Lang said Rivera had not been honest about his identity when they hired him.

Since news broke that Rivera was employed at the Lang family farm, Dane Lang said the family has received threatening messages.

“There were death threats, people threatening to burn down our buildings, somebody threatened to kill my dog,” he said. “This is a really scary situation.”

Lang expressed regret for employing Rivera, but said at the time he was hired they had complied with what the law required when verifying an employee’s identity.

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“This is a tragedy,” he said. “Mollie’s death is tragic. Everyone in our community wishes that this hadn’t happened. Mollie was well-known and well-liked. And I am very sorry that this happened.”

RIVERA AN UNKNOWN

So far, it appears little is known about Rivera’s life in Brooklyn.

Investigators gave no information about him, except for his identification, Tuesday when they announced his arrest.

They didn’t share information about his ties to Brooklyn or whether he had any past links to Tibbetts.

What is known is that Rivera worked on the Yarrabee farm for more than half the time he was in the area. Dane Lang said Rivera showed up for work daily, did his job and appeared to get along with co-workers. His job included cleaning cow stalls, locating and moving cattle and filling in to milk cows.

Jesus Gamboa, who sat in the courtroom gallery Wednesday, said he met Rivera a few years ago and thought he “seemed like a good guy.”

“When I met him he seemed shy and not that talkative,” Gamboa said. “He didn’t really say much. I didn’t see him again after that until today."

Gamboa, who knew Tibbetts through school and sports, said he “felt a little bit of hatred” when Rivera entered the courtroom, “knowing that he had talked to him in the past." Gamboa said he attended Wednesday’s proceeding because he wanted to see what would happen to Rivera and make sure justice would be served.

Speaking quietly and visibly uncomfortable talking to the throng of reporters that surrounded him, Gamboa said he knew Tibbetts to be a fighter.

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“She was a friend,” he said. “(She) was strong, always pushed you to your limit. She was outgoing and very positive. She always had a smile on her face.”

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

Vanessa Miller of The Gazette contributed.

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