Public Safety

Hearing for man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts reset after family emergency

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, arrives for his initial appearance on a charge of first-degree murder during at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. Rivera is accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, arrives for his initial appearance on a charge of first-degree murder during at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. Rivera is accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

MONTEZUMA — A judge reset a hearing, postponed early Tuesday, to Nov. 13 for the man charged with fatally stabbing 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts.

Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, charged with first-degree murder, had planned to argue that their client’s statements should be kept out of trial because they were not voluntary nor was his waiver of Miranda rights.

The hearing was continued because the defense team had a death in the family, according to court officials.

Expert witnesses will testify, during next month’s hearing, about how sleep deprivation affects a person’s judgment and DNA. A court interpreter will also challenge the accuracy of the Spanish used by law enforcement and the translated transcript provided by the prosecution.

The prosecution has conceded that a portion of Bahena Rivera’s interview cannot be used at trial because an officer inadvertently omitted the entire Miranda warning, leaving out that anything the defendant says can be used against him in court, according to court documents filed last week.

A second complete Miranda warning, prosecutors argued, was read to Bahena Rivera in a vehicle about 5:50 p.m. Aug. 21, 2018, while they were near the area Tibbett’s body was found. Bahena Rivera waived his rights that time and continued to talk with officers. It was after this when the defendant made numerous statements that implicate him in Tibbett’s slaying, according to the prosecution.

The prosecution, however, asserts the statements made following the incomplete and second warnings are voluntary, not coerced or the “product of a false confession,” the motion shows. Prosecutors plan to use any of those statements to rebut or impeach any expert or lay witness testimony.

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The prosecution’s motion also details how surveillance footage showed a jogger going northbound on Boundary Street where witnesses confirmed Tibbetts was jogging about that time on July 18, 2018. No other jogger was seen in the area during this time.

The same surveillance video showed a black Chevy Malibu with “distinct characteristics” going by multiple times in the minutes after Tibbetts jogged that route, according to court documents.

In a “chance encounter” on Aug. 16, a Poweshiek sheriff’s deputy saw the Malibu and followed it but didn’t stop the vehicle, prosecutors said. Instead, the driver, Bahena Rivera, voluntarily stopped, and the deputy asked a neighbor for assistance interpreting their conversation.

The deputy asked Bahena Rivera if he knew anything about Tibbett’s disappearance but he denied knowing anything, according to the motion. Two days later, authorities contacted Bahena Rivera at Yarrabee Farms, where he worked as a laborer.

Authorities obtained written and verbal consent from Bahena Rivera in Spanish to search both the Malibu and his girlfriend’s vehicle, which was driving that day, according to the prosecution. The state crime lab analysis showed blood found on the inside seal and liner of the Malibu’s trunk belonged to Tibbetts.

Bahena Rivera, who wasn’t in custody, voluntarily talked with authorities at the sheriff’s office, according to court documents. He admitted that Tibbetts said “hi” to him during the multiple times he passed her jogging and said the woman “was hot.”

Just before 11:30 p.m., during the interview, a federal agent spoke to Bahena Rivera on the phone and suspected he was undocumented, according to court documents. Federal agents then place an immigration detainer on the defendant, which prevented him from leaving at that time.

Prosecutors said Bahena Rivera made numerous incriminating statements throughout the interview.

“He gradually shifted from a denial of killing Mollie to a claim that he ‘didn’t remember’ doing anything to her,” court documents show.

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Bahena Rivera said he sometimes blacked out or couldn’t remember when he gets mad. Then, he said it was “possible” he did something “violent” to Tibbetts but didn’t remember, according to court documents.

Bahena Rivera then asked to speak to one of the officers and he told her he remembered “fighting” with Tibbetts, putting her in the car, and there was blood, court documents show. He couldn’t “say if she was dead or alive” but also remembered putting Tibbetts in the cornfield.

Prosecutors said after the interview, Bahena Rivera led police to Tibbett’s body. Law enforcement recovered her body Aug. 21, in a cornfield south of Guernsey, and an autopsy showed she died of multiple stab wounds.

After finding her body, an officer again read him the Miranda warning, complete this time, according to court documents. At that time, Bahena Rivera admitted to seeing Tibbetts jogging and he followed her. He then got out of his vehicle and jogged beside her. When Tibbetts threatened to call the police, it made him angry, he said.

He remembered being near a cornfield and covering the woman, who had blood on her head and body, with corn, according to court documents. Bahena Rivera refused to answer some questions, including how Tibbetts was killed. He said he didn’t remember.

Bahena Rivera’s trial was reset to Feb. 4 in Woodbury County. The trial was moved because of extensive pretrial publicity would prevent the undocumented man from having a fair trial.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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