City of Iowa, Iowa –A man was sentenced to life without parole on Monday for the kidnapping and murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, three years after he went missing on a night out.
Judge Joel Yates’ sentence for Cristhian Bahena Rivera was mandatory for ain Iowa, which does not apply the death penalty. The 27-year-old former farm worker, who said he arrived in the United States illegally from Mexico as a teenager, has been in jail since his arrest in August 2018.
Yates categorically rejected defense claims that others were responsible for the crime.
“Mr. Bahena Rivera, you and you alone forever changed the lives of those who loved Mollie Tibbetts,” he said.
The penalty crowns a case that has ignited, fueled fears of violence against lone runners and took several during and after Bahena Rivera’s trial in May.
Tibbetts’ mother Laura Calderwood addressed Bahena Rivera in a victim impact statement read out in court.
“Mollie was a young woman who just wanted to go for a leisurely run on the evening of July 18 and you chose to end this life in a violent and sadistic way,” she wrote.
Calderwood recalled tearful investigators telling her her 20-year-old daughter’s body had been found and she rushed to let loved ones know before they heard the news from the media. The most difficult conversation was with Mollie’s grandmother, who was not convinced that anyone “could hurt such a beautiful and vibrant young woman, so full of promise,” he said. she declared.
She said the murder caused Hispanic workers to flee the area out of fear, prevented Mollie’s boyfriend from giving her the engagement ring he bought, and meant her father would never take his only daughter in. the aisle.
“Because of your actions, Mr. Rivera, I will never see my daughter become a mother,” Calderwood said.
Tibbetts disappeared on a rural road outside of her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, population of 1,700, as she was out for a run on July 18, 2018. Family members and co-workers feared that something was wrong when Tibbetts didn’t show up for his summer daycare job the next morning.
Hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officers searched for weeks but came back empty. Investigators began to focus on Bahena Rivera, who worked under a pseudonym on a nearby dairy farm, after finding surveillance footage of an owner who appeared to show her Chevy Malibu repeatedly passing Tibbetts as she ran. .
After lengthy questioning, Bahena Rivera led authorities to a cornfield where he had buried Tibbetts’ body under leaves and stems. Only his shiny running shoes were visible. An autopsy revealed that she had been stabbed several times.
Bahena Rivera told investigators he approached Tibbetts because he found her attractive and had fought her after she threatened to call the police. He said he then passed out and regained consciousness as he drove with his body in his trunk.
Prosecutors suggested Bahena Rivera had a sexual motive, noting that Tibbetts was only wearing socks and a sports bra and that her legs were spread when her body was found. They built their case around the surveillance video, his partial confession, and DNA evidence of Tibbetts blood in his trunk.
“Based on the facts and the circumstances of this case, it is very well deserved,” said prosecutor Scott Brown of the life sentence.
Bahena Rivera’s lawyers argued that her confession was false and forced, and their client testified by surprise at the trial sharing a different account. Bahena Rivera said two masked men kidnapped him from his trailer at gunpoint, forced him to drive while they attacked Tibbetts, told him where to dispose of his body and told him to remain silent or that his young daughter and ex-girlfriend would be killed.
The defense has sought to cast suspicion on several others, including Tibbetts ‘boyfriend and a local MP who lives next door to where Tibbetts’ body was found.
Prosecutors called Bahena Rivera’s testimony a work of fiction and a unanimous 12-member jury found him guilty.
But two people immediately showed up to tell police that a 21-year-old man with a history of violence confessed to them that he had killed Tibbetts. Separately, a woman told police she was kidnapped after meeting an alleged sex trafficker at a Brooklyn gas station weeks before Tibbetts disappeared.
Yates delayed a conviction in July so the defense had time to investigate. Earlier this month, he rejected Bahena Rivera’s request for a new trial, saying the new information was unreliable and he saw no reason to overturn the verdict.
The defense plans to appeal. Bahena Rivera and her defense attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese declined to speak during sentencing.