Public Safety

'Heartbreaking' end: Investigators find body of Mollie Tibbetts in cornfield

Illegal immigrant Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, charged with her murder

Laura Calderwood (center in blue shirt), the mother of Mollie Tibbetts, is comforted during a press conference on the Mollie Tibbetts investigation at the Poweshiek County Sheriff's Office in Montezuma on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Laura Calderwood (center in blue shirt), the mother of Mollie Tibbetts, is comforted during a press conference on the Mollie Tibbetts investigation at the Poweshiek County Sheriff's Office in Montezuma on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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MONTEZUMA — Thirty-four days after college student Mollie Tibbetts vanished from an evening jog, the mystery of her disappearance came to a “heartbreaking” end Tuesday when authorities said they found her body in a cornfield and charged an undocumented immigrant with her murder.

Rick Rahn, special agent in charge with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, said during a news conference at the Poweshiek Sheriff’s Office that a body believed to be Tibbetts was found in a rural part of the county just south of Guernsey — not far from where she had disappeared from Brooklyn, Iowa. An autopsy has been scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Rahn said investigators were led to the remains by Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, who was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in her death. He was being held on a $1 million cash-only bail.

A court affidavit indicated Mollie was killed shortly after she was abducted July 18, but did not reveal how.

Her disappearance, already gaining national attention, quickly became part of the national dialogue on illegal immigration after the arrest was announced.

“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico, and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman.” President Donald Trump said in a speech Tuesday night in West Virginia. ”Should have never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad. The immigration laws are such a disgrace.”

WHAT HAPPENED

According to the court affidavit, investigators collected video surveillance from a residence on the northeast side of Brooklyn, showing Mollie jogging in the area the night she disappeared.

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Through a meticulous review of the footage, Rahn said, investigators noticed a dark Chevrolet Malibu driving back and forth at the same time Mollie was running.

Investigators were able to connect that car to Rivera, Rahn said, who was picked up Monday and questioned by law enforcement officials. During the interview, Rahn said, Rivera admitted seeing Mollie and then following her in the car before parking and running behind her.

At some point, investigators said, Rivera was running beside Mollie and she grabbed her phone and told him, “I’m gonna call the police.”

Rivera told investigators he panicked, got angry and then “blocked his memory,” something he said happens when he gets upset, according to the affidavit.

Rahn said investigators believe Mollie was grabbed near 385 Avenue.

When he "came to," the document states, Rivera found himself at an intersection with headphones in his lap. That’s when he realized he had put Mollie in the trunk of the car, according to the affidavit. Investigators said Rivera went to get her out of the trunk and noticed there was blood on the side of her head.

Rivera then found the cornfield, dragged Mollie from the car into it and left her face up, covered with corn leaves.

Rahn said the DCI has confirmed that Rivera is an illegal immigrant, believed to be from Mexico, who has been living in Poweshiek County for about seven years.

Rahn said he was unable to comment much on Rivera’s ties to Brooklyn, but said in the coming days investigators would be looking into Rivera’s life and if he has a criminal history.

A SHAKEN COMMUNITY

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As the news broke Tuesday that Mollie’s body may have been found, an eerie quiet fell over the town.

Blue ribbons — chosen because her favorite color supposedly was blue — have been affixed to all the flag and light poles downtown.

Several people expressed sorrow for what happened to her, and for what her family is going through.

In a previous interview with The Gazette, Poweshiek County Sheriff Thomas Kriegel said Mollie’s disappearance had shaken the small community of about 1,500 people to its core.

The sheriff said he started his law enforcement career in Brooklyn, has known Mollie’s mom, Laura Calderwood, for years, and has watched Mollie and her brothers grow up. Last year, Mollie attended the University of Iowa.

Kriegel appeared visibly shaken at Tuesday’s news conference.

“I hate that Mollie’s family is going through this, and I hate that the community has to go through this,” he told The Gazette. “It’s terrible for the family and terrible for everyone in the community.”

In the weeks after Mollie’s disappearance, Kreigel said he noticed a shift in the community. People were locking their doors more often. Parents were sticking closer to their children. And people were more and more walking in groups, and not alone.

“Something like this was not supposed to happen here,” said Assistant Director of DCI Field Operations Mitchell Mortvedt after the news conference. “This is a small community where everyone knows everyone else. This is the Midwest. People feel safe here, they come here to raise their families with a sense of safety.”

THE INVESTIGATION

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Mollie was house sitting at her boyfriend’s Brooklyn home before she disappeared. She was reported missing July 19 when her family realized she had not shown up for work at the Grinnell Regional Medical Center day care.

Calderwood earlier said it was not like her daughter, who loved working with the children at her job, to skip work or disappear without a word.

In the first few days of the investigation, hundreds volunteers searched fields around Calderwood’s house and those around the home of Dalton Jack, her boyfriend. Within days, state and federal authorities joined the search, deploying anywhere from 30 to 50 investigators, as well as analysts specializing in digital analysis and evidence collection.

During the course of the investigation, Mortvedt 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.

“The response has been enormous,” Mortvedt said. “And not just from law enforcement but from the community as well. The community’s support of us, and especially of the family, has been nothing short of amazing.”

ALL-AMERICAN GIRL

After Tuesday’s news conference, Mortvedt expressed disappointment investigators were not able to find Mollie alive.

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“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “We were all very invested in this case. I mean, you can’t help but take a case like this personally. We have all become so familiar with Mollie and her family, that it feels like we know her.”

Though unimaginable for her loved ones, he said, the outcome has been extremely difficult for investigators, too.

“A lot of us have children, and some of us have children close to Mollie’s age,” Mortvedt said. “It’s just very difficult for everyone.”

In his 24 years with the DCI, Mortvedt said he has seen only a few cases grab the nation’s attention this way.

“Mollie is relatable,” he said. “She could be anyone’s daughter, anyone’s sister, anyone’s friend. She’s the All-American girl. She was kind and pretty and likable and had everything going for her, and I think her smile captivated the nation.”

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

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