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Prosecutor in trial of Mollie Tibbetts’ death dismisses defendant’s testimony as ‘figment of his imagination’


A prosecutor in the murder trial of a farm worker accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts dismissed outright the man’s testimony that two masked men forced him to help in their murder plot.

“There weren’t two other guys. That’s a figment of his imagination,” prosecutor Scott Brown told jurors in closing arguments Thursday. “All of the credible evidence in this case points at him.”

The closing arguments came after just over a week of testimony in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who is charged with first-degree murder. Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, disappeared after going on a run in July 2018, and her body was found in a cornfield over a month later.

Bahena Rivera’s defense rested Wednesday after he took the stand and contradicted much of his original confession about his alleged role in the killing of Tibbetts. The defense has argued there’s not enough evidence to convict.

In August 2018, he admitted to law enforcement that he had followed Tibbetts on a run, got angry at her and “blacked out,” according to an arrest affidavit. He said he later came to and realized she was bleeding in his vehicle’s trunk and then buried her in a remote cornfield, prosecutors said.

Bahena Rivera then led police to the cornfield, where investigators found her body with fatal stab wounds, prosecutors said.

But in testimony Wednesday, Bahena Rivera — speaking through an interpreter — told a very different story of what happened the night Tibbetts disappeared. He claimed to have been taking a shower when two unknown men broke into his trailer and demanded his help. One had a knife and the other had a gun, he said.

He testified that they forced themselves into his black Chevy Malibu and told him to drive toward town. That was when he said they came across a young woman he now knows to be Tibbetts.

Bahena Rivera testified that he was told to stop, while the man with the knife exited the car. He said both men then got out of the vehicle and he heard them opening and closing the trunk.

When the men left, he said he found Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of the car. He said he took her body out of the trunk, placed her in a corn field and covered her body with corn stalks.

Bahena Rivera said he didn’t know why the men sought his help. He testified that he falsely confessed to police because he feared the men would harm his daughter and ex-girlfriend and because he thought telling investigators what they wanted to hear would help him.

Defendant said he fought with Tibbetts in confession

The prosecution said that it was Bahena Rivera who followed Tibbetts, stabbed her to death, put her in the trunk of his car and hid her body.

“When you put this evidence together, there can be no other conclusion than that the defendant killed Mollie Tibbetts,” Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver said at the start of the trial.

The prosecution’s case relied on Bahena Rivera’s unique vehicle accessories and his admissions to investigators, much of which was previously included in an arrest affidavit.

Home surveillance video from the night of July 18, 2018, spotted the silhouette of a woman running — as well as repeated sightings of a black Chevy Malibu with non-standard rims, chrome door handles and chrome mirrors, Klaver said. An investigator later spotted a similar vehicle and interviewed the driver, identified as Bahena Rivera, Klaver said.

In a follow-up interview with a Spanish-speaking Iowa City Police officer on August 20, Rivera admitted he was the only one who drove that vehicle, the prosecutor said. After initially denying knowing about Tibbetts, he then admitted he had seen her the night she disappeared, admitted he found her attractive and said he circled back for a second look, Klaver told the jury.

The next morning, Rivera and investigators went to a cornfield in rural Poweshiek County, where he allegedly admitted he had followed Tibbetts and jogged next to her. She had threatened to call the police, and Rivera admitted he got angry and fought with her, Klaver told the court.

“The next thing he remembers” was that he was driving and realized Tibbetts was in his trunk, Klaver said. Rivera allegedly admitted he took her bloody body out of the trunk, carried her into a field and placed corn stalks over her body, according to Klaver.

Her body was found in that cornfield wearing the same multicolored running shoes from her jog, the prosecutor said. The Medical Examiner determined Tibbetts had been stabbed seven to 12 times. Blood matching her DNA was also found in the trunk of the vehicle, Klaver said.

The disappearance of Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, sparked an extensive search in the region that drew national attention. She was studying psychology and wanted to get a doctorate and write books, her father said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the details of Bahena Rivera’s alleged confession. He did not confess that he killed Tibbetts, but said he had followed Tibbetts on a run, got angry at her and “blacked out” before finding her bleeding in his trunk and then buried her in a remote cornfield, according to an arrest affidavit and testimony at trial.

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