MONTEZUMA — A law enforcement official testified Wednesday that the body of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts eventually would have been found even if her accused killer hadn’t led authorities to it in a cornfield near Guernsey.
Special Agent Trent Vileta of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 25, charged with first-degree murder, led them to her body Aug. 21, 2018. But if he hadn’t, investigators would have continued expanding the search for her, he said. In fact, they had just been canvassing the area two houses away from that cornfield.
Vileta said authorities would have likely found the body near harvest time, when the ground could be easily seen. She was wearing fluorescent tennis shoes, a pink sports bra and shorts.
Those were at the scene, but her Fitbit and a murder weapon weren’t found there.
Many farmers in Poweshiek County had been concerned about finding the 20-year-old’s body on their land, Vileta noted, so they were aware and on the lookout for that possibility.
Defense attorneys for Bahena Rivera are arguing to prevent key evidence — including a confession and Tibbett’s body — from being used as evidence at his trial.
They argue that if his rights were violated or his statements were not made voluntarily during police interviews, then nothing he said can be used at trial — a confession, blood matching her DNA found in his vehicle and that he led authorities to her body.
Prosecutors are arguing that the body inevitably would have been found, so it shouldn’t matter whether Bahena Rivera led them to it.
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The evidence suppression hearing started Wednesday in Poweshiek County District Court and may wrap up Thursday afternoon. The judge likely will provide a written ruling later.
Tibbetts went missing July 18, 2018, after she went out for a jog in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. Investigators working the case obtained a surveillance video from a homeowner in Brooklyn that captured images of a jogger they believed was Tibbetts.
The video also showed a black Chevrolet Malibu with chrome door handles and mirrors.
Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Kivi testified he encountered the Malibu on Aug. 16, 2018, on Highway 63 and followed it until it stopped in Malcom.
When a man got out, Kivi approached him and tried to talk to him but there was a language barrier. A neighbor came out of his house and assisted Kivi with Spanish.
The man got identification from the car and it was Bahena Rivera, Kivi testified. During their conversation, Bahena Rivera said he had heard a girl was missing, but he was calm during the conversation and nothing “put up red flags,” Kivi testified.
However, authorities went to talk with Bahena Rivera more a few days later at Yarabee Farms, where he worked. They took DNA samples from him and other workers, obtained his consent to search the car, and brought him to the Sheriff’s Office to be questioned for hours.
Police Officer Pamela Romaro translated for law enforcement during Bahena Rivera’s interview. She testified she had interview experience with suspects or persons of interest, but wasn’t trained in interrogation techniques. She worked patrol at the time for Iowa City police, but is no longer with that department.
Romaro admitted she had omitted part of the Miranda warning — a section about using anything a defendant says to police in court — but it was an honest mistake.
She said she recited the required Miranda warning to him by memory, not by reading it from a card.
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Jennifer Frese, one of Bahena Rivera’s lawyers, repeatedly asked why she hadn’t read it from a card or form.
Romaro said she didn’t have one. She usually kept one in her back pack, she said, but didn’t have it that day.
But after Bahena Rivera led authorities to the body, an investigator told her to read him his Miranda rights again.
She testified she did — in full this time. Bahena Rivera did finally tell investigators more details about the killing.
Prosecutors acknowledge that Bahena Rivera’s statements for hours leading to the discovery of Tibbetts’ body are inadmissible because of the faulty Miranda warning.
But their witnesses argued that other key evidence should be allowed.
Vileta testified the surveillance video of Bahena Rivera’s car was discovered before the police interview in question — meaning that evidence still could be used if the judge decided to toss out part of the interview.
Investigators also said they found blood in the trunk of Malibu, and the DNA matched Tibbetts.
That finding had nothing to do with the questionable interview, either, they said.
Bahena Rivera’s murder trial is in February.
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