Public Safety

Trial reset to May for man accused of killing 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts in 2018

Cristhian Bahena Rivera is escorted out of the courtroom Sept. 19, 2018, after pleading not guilty at the Poweshiek Coun
Cristhian Bahena Rivera is escorted out of the courtroom Sept. 19, 2018, after pleading not guilty at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma to the charge of first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts. (The Gazette)
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MONTEZUMA — The trial for the man accused of fatally stabbing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts over two years ago has been reset again — because of the coronavirus health crisis — to May 17.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 26, charged with first-degree murder, was to be tried in January, but the Iowa Supreme Court in November delayed all jury trials until Feb. 1.

Last year, the court moved the trial out of Poweshiek County because of pretrial publicity.

The trial initially was going to be in Woodbury County District Court in Sioux City, but the defense and prosecution asked 8th Judicial District Judge Joel Yates to move it to Scott County to accommodate scheduling.

Bahena Rivera, a Mexican national living illegally in the United States, is accused of fatally stabbing 20-year-old Tibbetts, who went missing July 18, 2018, while jogging in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. Her body was found Aug. 21 in a cornfield where Bahena Rivera led authorities.

Authorities, during a suppression hearing last November, said Bahena Rivera admitted to driving past Tibbetts on July 18, 2018, while she was jogging, then getting out of the car and chasing after her. Tibbetts threatened to call the police, authorities said, which angered Bahena Rivera.

Investigators obtained a surveillance video from a homeowner in Brooklyn that captured images of a jogger they believe was Tibbetts, which shows Bahena Rivera’s vehicle, a black Chevrolet Malibu with distinctive chrome handles and mirrors, passing by her, according to testimony.

Bahena Rivera told authorities he “blocked his memory” but later found Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of the Malibu. He then hid her body in a cornfield, according to testimony.

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The state medical examiner’s report determined Tibbetts died of “multiple sharp force injuries.”

In the motion to suppress and pretrial appeals, Bahena Rivera’s attorneys argued authorities had not properly read their client his Miranda rights until hours into an interrogation. Therefore, they said, statements he made were inadmissible.

Prosecutors, in their brief, acknowledged some statements shouldn’t be admitted because some of the rights were left out when read to Bahena Rivera.

Police later read him the Miranda rights properly, officers testified during the hearing.

Yates agreed that some of Bahena Rivera’s statements must be omitted from trial. He also ruled his statements were made voluntarily during the interrogation and in giving consent to search his vehicle.

He also noted that a consent form in Spanish informed Bahena Rivera he had the right to refuse a search of the vehicle.

Even when the tone of questioning shifted to be confrontational because law enforcement didn’t believe Bahena Rivera, he had access to his cellphone and was free to leave, the judge stated.

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

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