DAVENPORT, Iowa - The trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera accused of murdering Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts entered its second week on Monday as the prosecution continues to make its case against the 26-year-old dairy farm worker.
Bahena Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in Tibbetts’ stabbing death. The 20-year-old University of Iowa student vanished while out running on July 18, 2018, in Brooklyn, Iowa, and investigators recovered her partially naked, decomposing body from a cornfield a month later.
Prosecutors have used the DNA evidence, surveillance video showing Bahena Rivera’s Chevy Malibu driving near where Tibbetts was running, and the suspect’s partial confession to build their case.
An agent who oversaw the 2018 investigation into the disappearance of Tibbetts testified Monday that a shortage of Spanish-speaking officers delayed and hindered his ability to question the man on trial in her stabbing death.
Division of Criminal Investigation agent Trent Vileta said he wanted to speak with Bahena Rivera after investigators linked him to a car seen on video driving near where Mollie Tibbetts disappeared.
Mollie Tibbetts was a 20-year-old college student who disappeared after going for a run in July 2018. (Source: Family handout)
But that took four days, in part because investigators knew they needed to question Bahena Rivera and his co-workers in Spanish, and "we didn’t have any Spanish speakers," Vileta said.
Prosecutors say Bahena Rivera followed Tibbetts while she ran on July 18, 2018, killed her after she threatened to call police then hid her body in a cornfield. They say Bahena Rivera led investigators to the body after making a partial confession on Aug. 20, 2018, and that Tibbetts’ DNA was a match for blood found in his trunk.
Vileta acknowledged Monday that investigators never found a murder weapon and do not have physical evidence proving Bahena Rivera killed her, only that her body was in his vehicle's trunk. Bahena Rivera told police that he "blacked out" and couldn’t remember how he killed Tibbetts.
Vileta said the evidence suggests Tibbetts was abducted on a road outside Brooklyn after 8 p.m., but that he does not know precisely where or when she was killed.
Data from Tibbetts’ cellphone provider shows her phone was moving at a running pace before accelerating to over 60 mph around 8:27 p.m. and eventually slowing down and stopping more than 10 miles away, FBI agent Kevin Horan testified. By 8:53 p.m., her phone went dark.
Agents narrowed their focus to that rural area near the town of Guernsey, where her body was later found. Her cellphone and FitBit device were never recovered, Vileta said.
Investigators say Bahena Rivera, who faces life in prison if convicted, led them to the cornfield where Tibbetts’ body was found in the early morning of Aug. 21, 2018. He told an officer at the scene that he approached Tibbetts while she was running and fought with her after she threatened to call the police. He said he didn’t remember how he killed her but that he hid her bloody body in the field underneath cornstalks, former officer Pamela Romero testified last week.
An autopsy determined Tibbetts died of multiple sharp-force injuries consistent with stab wounds from a knife with a single-edged blade, State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein told jurors Monday afternoon.
Tibbetts suffered up to 12 wounds to her head, neck, chest and other body parts, including one injury that penetrated her skull, Klein said. An injury to her right hand suggested she was trying to defend herself.
Bahena Rivera remained largely expressionless throughout the day. He watched as the medical examiner discussed several photos showing the wounds to Tibbetts' body, which had decomposed by the time it was recovered.
Tara Scott, a criminalist in the DNA section of Iowa’s crime lab, told jurors on Friday that she analyzed a swab taken from a bloodstain found on the trunk seal of Bahena Rivera’s car.
"The profile I had from Mollie Tibbetts and the profile from that blood matched," Scott testified. "They were exactly the same."
Bahena Rivera’s defense lawyers made the case Friday that the confession was false and coerced as a result of sleep deprivation and harsh interrogation techniques. They played videos for jurors showing their client sleeping during the 11-hour interrogation.
Investigators initially searched Bahena Rivera’s car on Aug. 20, 2018, after he gave his consent and submitted to the interrogation.
Criminalist Amy Johnson testified that investigators initially overlooked the bloodstain on the trunk’s rubber seal, but found it during an additional search two days later.
Scott said that stain was the first match for Tibbetts’ DNA. Later analysis of blood found on the trunk’s liner also was a match for Tibbetts, whose DNA had been collected from one of her water bottles during the investigation into her disappearance and from her body when it was discovered in the field, she said.
Members of the jury of 15 people, including three alternates, appeared to pay close attention during the DNA testimony, with at least three jotting notes in their court-issued notebooks.
During the first week of the trial, prosecutors also showed jurors several crime scene photos of what Tibbetts body' looked like on the day it was found. It was covered in cornstalks, with only her running shoes sticking out and visible.
After investigators removed the stalks, photos showed her legs were spread apart and she was wearing only socks and a sports bra. Shorts, underpants and a headband were found further into the cornfield, Johnson testified.
Investigators testified they did not recover any sperm from those items. Romero said Bahena Rivera had referred to Tibbetts as "hot" but gave no indication that he sexually assaulted her.
Investigators also told the court they were able to pinpoint where Tibbetts went missing by tracking her location through her phone.
"She had been jogging on 380 5th Avenue. She had her phone with her," Poweshiek County Deputy Steve Kivi testified. "And all of a sudden, her phone is traveling like 55 or 60 miles an hour south down a gravel road. And then it just shuts off in the middle of nowhere."
On the trial’s opening day, jurors heard from Dalton Jack, the longtime boyfriend of Tibbetts, who testified that he had nothing to do with her death, saying he had been out of town for work and was heartbroken by her slaying.
During cross-examination, defense lawyers for Bahena Rivera worked to try to cast suspicion on Jack, painting him as a man with a temper who had a tumultuous relationship with Tibbetts and had cheated on her with at least one other woman.
Jack, 23 and now an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, testified that he met Tibbetts in high school and had been dating her for three years. He described her as "happy, bubbly, goofy," saying she liked to have fun and that she went running most days.
On the day she disappeared, Tibbetts was staying at the Brooklyn home where Jack and his older brother Blake Jack lived. She had been watching Blake’s dogs while the brothers were out of town that week for work.
The Jack brothers testified that they became concerned after learning on July 19 that Tibbetts had not shown up for work at a daycare, and she was not answering her phone. Both returned to Brooklyn to search for her before calling police.
Dalton testified that he had been part of a crew building a bridge in Dubuque, about 140 miles from Brooklyn. He worked 12 hours on July 18 then drank beer and played yard games with the crew before going to sleep at a hotel, adding that he never returned to Brooklyn that night.
On cross-examination, Dalton acknowledged he used to have a "short fuse" and would get into fights. He said that he had "screwed up" and cheated on Tibbetts once, and that she discovered the relationship after looking through his phone.
Dalton admitted that he initially told police that he was watching a movie in his hotel room on the night she disappeared and that he withheld information about his infidelity, calling it irrelevant. He also acknowledged that he told police his last communication with Tibbetts was a Snapchat he received at 10:30 p.m. that night, but phone records show it was after 1 a.m.
He also said he did not agree to voluntarily testify and required a subpoena because he didn’t want to be in "the same room" as Bahena Rivera.
"I am obviously not his biggest fan," he said. "I wholeheartedly believe he’s guilty."
The jury including three alternates is comprised of 12 White people and three of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish descent, according to demographic data released Wednesday.
The case inflamed passions over illegal immigration after then-President Donald Trump said Bahena Rivera had exploited lax immigration laws to enter the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.