Killing of Mollie Tibbetts
Mollie Cecilia Tibbetts
May 8, 1998
|Disappeared||July 18, 2018|
Brooklyn, Iowa, U.S.
August 21, 2018 (aged 20)
|Body discovered||Poweshiek County, Iowa, U.S.|
|Residence||Brooklyn, Iowa, U.S.|
|Education||University of Iowa|
|Occupation||Day camp worker|
|Employer||Grinnell Regional Medical Center|
Mollie Cecilia Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, disappeared on July 18, 2018, while jogging near her home in Brooklyn, Iowa. After a month-long search, police identified 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera as a suspect using surveillance camera footage that showed his car following her on her jog. He led police to her body in a Poweshiek County cornfield on August 21 and was charged with first-degree murder.
Rivera's immigration status became a politicized issue after police, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement indicated he had been in the country illegally.
Mollie Cecilia Tibbetts was born on May 8, 1998, in San Francisco, California, to Rob Tibbetts and Laura Calderwood. When she was in the second grade, her parents divorced, and she moved to Iowa with her mother and two siblings. Her father kept in touch with the family through telephone, and he last saw her at his wedding in 2017. At the time of her disappearance, she was a resident of Brooklyn, Iowa, a small town about 70 miles (110 km) east of Des Moines, and a psychology major at the University of Iowa. She was preparing for her sophomore year in college when she disappeared, and worked at a children's day camp at Grinnell Regional Medical Center.
On July 18, 2018, Tibbetts, a former cross country runner, left the home of her boyfriend's brother in Brooklyn for an evening jog. She was last seen at approximately 7:30 p.m. CDT and was reported missing by her family when she did not show up for work the following day. According to police, her last confirmed communication was with her boyfriend of three years, shortly before leaving for her jog. Her boyfriend was out of town for work in Dubuque, Iowa, over 130 miles (210 km) away. He told investigators he received a Snapchat message from her later in the evening that appeared to show her indoors.
Over the next several weeks, police in multiple states investigated hundreds of leads in the case, including an unconfirmed sighting at a truck stop in Kearney, Missouri (later confirmed to have been false), but were not able to locate Tibbetts. They received over 2,300 tips and conducted over 500 interviews during the course of the investigation. As she was known to always wear her Fitbit activity tracker, police attempted to use its data to help find her.
About four weeks after Tibbetts' disappearance, police said that the search had been refocused to several specific areas in and around Brooklyn, including her boyfriend's home, a truck stop, a car wash, and two area farms. Prior to the discovery of Tibbetts' body, monetary rewards for information leading to closure in the case had reached over $366,000, surpassing the previous record reward amount raised by the local Crime Stoppers branch. As the money was to be used as a reward on the condition of her safe return, Crime Stoppers announced that the money would be returned to those who requested it, or dispersed to the general Crime Stoppers fund and/or to the Tibbetts family.
On August 21, police in Iowa announced that a body had been found in Poweshiek County, where Tibbetts' hometown of Brooklyn is located; the body was identified as Tibbetts' in an autopsy that was conducted two days later by the Iowa State Medical Examiner. They had been led to the site by 24-year-old suspect Cristhian Bahena Rivera.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, age 24, lived and worked in the rural Poweshiek County area where Tibbetts vanished. Originally from El Guayabillo, Guerrero, Mexico, he arrived in the United States at age 17 and had lived in the area for a few years. He had worked at another farm before coming to Yarrabee Farms near Brooklyn, Iowa, in August 2014. Rivera self-identified and received his paychecks under the name John Budd.
Rivera became a target of investigators after they obtained footage from a nearby surveillance camera, showing a Chevrolet Malibu driving back and forth in the area where Tibbetts was jogging. After linking the car to him, police approached him without incident. They said he confessed to kidnapping and killing her and dumping her body. According to an affidavit filed by the Poweshiek County Sheriff's Office, he led them to the body in a secluded location within a cornfield.
A spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said its systems did not indicate Rivera "has any lawful immigration status." Later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed this determination, by saying "law enforcement remains absolutely confident that we've correctly identified the suspect as an illegal alien from Mexico, based both on investigative interviews with him and on records checks." Rivera worked at Yarrabee Farms, owned by the family of a prominent Iowa Republican leader, Craig Lang. As part of his employment, the Lang family allowed Rivera to live rent-free on their land. Yarabee Farms initially claimed that they had vetted Rivera's immigration status through the federal E-Verify program. After E-Verify indicated that Yarabee Farms was not subscribed to its program, Yarabee Farms said it used the Social Security Administration system and clarified that Rivera had given them false information. In a motion for a gag order on August 22, Rivera's lawyer said Rivera was in the United States legally.
On August 24, Rivera changed his legal counsel and rescinded several motions filed by his original attorney. He is now represented by Chad Frese and Jennifer Frese, a married couple who normally work for different law firms, but are privately retained by Rivera's relatives.
On September 19, Rivera pleaded not guilty and waived his right to a speedy trial.
Memorials and tributes
Tibbetts' younger brother and his football team memorialized her by printing her initials on the team jerseys. Some runners used the hashtag #MilesforMollie to highlight harassment and safety issues experienced by women who run, since she had been attacked while running. Her friends started an online group that gained attention on social media called "The Mollie Movement", which encourages people to be kind to each other in her honor. During her funeral, her family called for mourners to remember her passion for life and desire to help others, by "celebrating something wonderful", such as her father highlighting a couple who had been married the day previous.
Vice President Mike Pence called attention to the case at the beginning of a speech in Des Moines on August 15, telling a crowd of President Donald Trump's supporters that the government would continue to provide "any and all federal support" to the case. Pence later met with the Tibbetts family aboard Air Force Two.
Trump made a video statement on August 22 saying: “A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. We need the wall, we need our immigration laws changed, we need our border laws changed."
The case has been compared to the 2015 Shooting of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco and the 2018 Killing of Ronil Singh in California,  and became a political talking point for more restrictive immigration policies. Some proponents of tighter restrictions on immigration have emphasized that the suspect had entered the country illegally. Liberals characterized such responses as fearmongering, citing studies finding immigrants less likely to commit crimes.
The immigration status of the suspect has also raised debates about the differential treatment of undocumented farm workers to other undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Reaction of family to politicization of Tibbetts' death
In August 2018 after her body was recovered, the Tibbetts family released a statement in which they asked for time to process the information and to share their grief in private. In addition, Tibbetts' father responding to Donald Trump, Jr., criticized Trump Jr., political operators, commentators, and others as "heartless" and "despicable" in the use of her death in politics, and particularly decried the use against immigrants. During the politicization, Tibbetts' friend, aunt and second cousin spoke out against the sentiment. The cousin asked conservative commentator Candace Owens on Twitter to "stop being a fucking snake and using my cousins death as political propaganda", after Owens had invoked it to complain about left-wing media.
At her funeral Tibbetts' father echoed the sentiment, stating, "But we need to turn toward life – Mollie's life – because Mollie's nobody's victim. Mollie's my hero." He continued his support for the Hispanic community, and rebuked the negative comments made by others by stating; "The Hispanic community are Iowans. They have the same values as Iowans. As far as I'm concerned, they're Iowans with better food." He denounced those who "appropriate Mollie's soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist."
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During his four years at the farm near the small town of Brooklyn, Iowa, Bahena Rivera “was called and responded to the name he used in the hiring process,”
- Chavez, Nicole (August 22, 2018). "Mollie Tibbetts case mystified police until a security camera offered a key clue". CNN. Retrieved August 26, 2018.
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ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer tells the Register that "law enforcement remains absolutely confident that we've correctly identified the suspect as an illegal alien from Mexico
- Klein, Ann; Smith, Mitch (August 22, 2018). "Killing of Mollie Tibbetts in Iowa Inflames Immigration Debate". The New York Times. Retrieved August 29, 2018.
He is "an illegal alien from Mexico," said Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE
- Eller, Donnelle; Hardy, Kevin (August 25, 2018). "Mollie Tibbetts' death puts a spotlight on undocumented workers. But can Iowa's economy thrive without them?". Des Moines Register. Retrieved August 25, 2018.
But the family later corrected themselves, saying they realized an employee had used a less-thorough Social Security Administration system to check Rivera's status, and he had supplied false information.
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