Public Safety

Man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts has new lawyers

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, responds to a question from magistrate judge Diane Crooklyn-Johnson as he makes 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 in the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, responds to a question from magistrate judge Diane Crooklyn-Johnson as he makes 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 in the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

MONTEZUMA — The man accused in the death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts has hired new lawyers from Marshalltown as he prepares his defense.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, an undocumented immigrant living in Brooklyn, Iowa, for several years, is charged with first-degree murder and will now be represented by Chad and Jennifer Frese of the Kaplan and Frese law firm. The Freses filed their appearance Sunday, and also waived a preliminary hearing, previously set for Friday in Poweshiek County District Court.

Chad Frese didn’t return a phone call Monday.

Typically in Iowa, preliminary hearings are waived if a prosecutor files trial information, which includes formal charges, minutes of testimony and witnesses who will testify at trial. The trial information also must be approved by a judge.  

Rivera’s former attorney, Allen Richards of Tama, claimed last week during an initial appearance that Rivera was in the country legally but offered no proof of that claim, except that Rivera worked at Yarrabee Farms, a dairy farm in Brooklyn.

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‘A beacon of light’: Family, friends, community remember Mollie Tibbetts

Autopsy report: Mollie Tibbetts died from “sharp force” wounds

According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Rivera is in the country illegally.

Yarrabee Farms owners Dane Lang and his father, Craig — a prominent Iowa Republican — told reporters last week that Rivera had given them a false documentation when he was hired, which did not trigger alarms when they sought to verify his information with the Social Security Administration. The Langs said they did not use the federal E-Verify system as a cross-check to verify Rivera’s legal status.

Authorities haven’t revealed a motive for the crime but they said Rivera confessed last week before he led law enforcement to a cornfield in rural Poweshiek County, where Tibbetts’ body was found under corn leaves. 

Tibbetts, a University of Iowa sophomore, disappeared from her hometown of Brooklyn on the evening of July 18 after she went jogging.

Police received a video a few weeks ago showing Tibbetts running in an area of Boundary and Middle streets in Brooklyn that day. A car, later connected to Rivera, can be seen circling the area several times.

In an interview with investigators last Monday, Rivera admitted following a woman who was running in Brooklyn. He told them he got out of his car and ran behind and alongside her.

Rivera told investigators he panicked and got mad when the woman said she was going to call police. He “blocked” his “memory,” something he does when he gets very upset, he told investigators.

When he “came to” at an intersection, he made a U-turn and drove to a cornfield. He noticed an ear piece from headphones in his lap and realized he put the woman’s body in the car’s trunk, according to criminal complaints.

Rivera then carried her about 20 meters into the field and left her there, according to criminal complaints.

Rivera’s phone was used to determine the route he traveled, and he guided investigators from memory to the body.

A preliminary autopsy released last Thursday showed Tibbetts died from “multiple sharp-force injuries.”

Tibbetts’ memorial service was Sunday in Brooklyn. Those who spoke remembered her as a “beacon of light.” Her father, Rob Tibbetts, called her his “hero.”  

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

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