Public Safety

Mollie Tibbetts's disappearance has small Iowa town on edge

'I think people are keeping their children closer now,' sheriff says

Missing person signs are printed Friday at Live Now Photography and Design in Brooklyn, Iowa. The shop has been busy printing signs and T shirts to spread the word about Mollie Tibbetts’ disappearance last month. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Missing person signs are printed Friday at Live Now Photography and Design in Brooklyn, Iowa. The shop has been busy printing signs and T shirts to spread the word about Mollie Tibbetts’ disappearance last month. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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BROOKLYN, Iowa — In his 36-year career, Poweshiek County Sheriff Thomas Kriegel said he has never seen a case like the disappearance of Mollie Tibbetts, the University of Iowa student who vanished from town last month.

“This is a small town,” he said of Brooklyn, a community of about 1,500 people just north of Interstate 80 about halfway between Iowa City and Des Moines. “We don’t have to deal with a lot of the horror stories you hear coming out of the big cities. Occasionally I’d see or hear a story about someone going missing or disappearing, but I never thought it would happen here.”

Tibbetts, 20, was reported missing July 19 after her family realized she had not shown up for work. She was last seen the night before jogging through town wearing black shorts, a pink or red sports top and running shoes.

Since then, investigators said they have run down hundreds of leads and searched numerous areas in or around Brooklyn. They’ve scrutinized data and digital records associated with her social media accounts and electronic devices, including her FitBit activity tracker. But they’ve been tight-lipped about what they think happened to her — saying they’re “not ruling anything out.”

Tibbetts’ disappearance, the sheriff said, has left a cloud hanging over the community.

“This is something that hits close to home. Up until a few weeks ago, Brooklyn was a town where people felt safe enough to leave their doors unlocked at night,” Kriegel said. “They’d let their kids out to play. The kids could walk down to the park, or if they wanted to walk into town and get a bottle of pop or an ice cream cone on their own, they could do that and the parents knew they’d come home safe.”

But with the disappearance, Kriegel said, he’s seen a shift.

“I think people are keeping their children closer now,” he said. “They’re keeping a close eye on their children whether they’re playing at the park or walking down the street.”

Kriegel said he’s also noticed people walking more in groups — in twos and threes, rather than alone — and joggers are sticking to running within the city limits and avoiding the surrounding rural roads.

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“What’s happening makes no sense,” said Rob Tibbetts, Mollie’s father. “And I think what’s happened to Mollie has struck people in some deep fearful place and we’re all just trying make sense of this.”

As they wait for investigators to come up with answers, Tibbetts’ father and Laura Calderwood, her mother, said all they can do is take it moment by moment and try to keep Mollie’s story in the public eye.

Calderwood said her daughter always has been a force to be reckoned with — even as a young girl, she was competitive, outspoken and determined.

“She was really looking forward to getting back to school,” she said. “She had really blossomed during her first year. She loved being a college student and loved learning and she was enjoying her independence.”

Mollie Tibbetts was studying child psychology, Calderwood said, and had plans to go to graduate school and get her doctorate.

“She wanted to help troubled children,” Calderwood said. “And she talked about wanting to write.”

The young woman had her life planned out to a “T,” her father said.

“She knew exactly what she wanted to do and exactly what she wanted her life to look like,” he said. “And she had it all timed out from college to grad school to getting married and buying a house and having kids.”

The parents said there had been quiet talk of marriage between Tibbetts and her boyfriend, Dalton Jack. The two are high school sweethearts who have been together for about three years, they said.

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“But she was very clear that it would have to wait until she’d finished school,” Rob Tibbetts said. “Mollie was like that. She had everything planned and was going to stick to that plan.”

Since the disappearance, Tibbetts’ family has felt a hole in their lives and in their home.

“There’s definitely an emptiness, like something is missing,” Calderwood said. “You feel it most in the morning and at night.”

Calderwood said her daughter’s disappearance “has brought up so many memories,” and the family often sits around and talks about things she’s done or said and the stories they’ll tell when she returns.

“There are a lot of jokes or things that we talk about now that end with, ‘I can’t wait to tell Mollie that,’” her father said.

Determined to bring her home safely, the family has thrown themselves into keeping Mollie’s story alive through news interviews, social media posts, flyers and raising reward funds.

This week, Calderwood said a reward fund was established, in partnership with CrimeStoppers of Central Iowa, at First State Bank in Brooklyn. As of Friday, that fund had raised more than $200,000 in reward money for information leading to the safe return of Mollie Tibbetts. Information and tips can be given anonymously through CrimeStoppers.

“We did this as a way to offer a completely different avenue than going to the authorities,” Calderwood said. “We know that there is someone out there who knows something, and maybe they’re afraid for their own safety if they talk, or maybe they have information on someone close to them. They can give that information anonymously and they don’t have to worry about being afraid of doing that.”

Information given to CrimeStoppers is scrubbed of the identifying details and then passed on to authorities to investigate.

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“Eventually someone is going to come forward with something that will break this thing open,” the father said.

“I don’t think this is random,” he continued. "Someone we know or someone Mollie was familiar with knows what happened and has information that can help us. And now I think they’re in over their head and don’t know how to end this. All they have to do is make that call to CrimeStoppers and let Mollie go.”

As much as she hopes to have daughter back, Calderwood said she’s "in it for the long haul."

"I want Mollie home now," she said." But I'm also a realist and I realize this could go on for weeks or months or even years. However long it takes, I'm not going to give up. This doesn't end for me until Mollie is home."

But until then, all the family can do is wait for word from investigators.

“I hate that Mollie’s family is going through this, and I hate that the community has to go through this,” Sheriff Kriegel said. “Not knowing, I think has taken a toll on everybody. I just hope that we can all stay strong for the family and for the community and work this case until we get some sort of resolution. And, I hope that resolution means bringing Mollie back safe.”

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

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