Farmworker Convicted of Fatally Stabbing Iowa College Student

By Michael Levenson

Cristhian Bahena Rivera was found guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Mollie Tibbetts in 2018. Donald J. Trump had seized on her death to rail against illegal immigration.

Mollie Tibbetts in 2016 during homecoming festivities at BGM High School in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.
Mollie Tibbetts in 2016 during homecoming festivities at BGM High School in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.Credit...Kim Calderwood, via Associated Press

A farmworker was found guilty of first-degree murder on Friday in the fatal stabbing of a University of Iowa student who had vanished while jogging in 2018, a case that briefly inflamed the national debate over immigration.

Jurors convicted the farmworker, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, in the killing of the student, Mollie Tibbetts, 20, whose body was found after a monthlong search, hidden under corn leaves in a field outside Brooklyn, Iowa, her hometown.

Mr. Bahena Rivera, 26, who had led the authorities to Ms. Tibbetts’s body and who was found to have Ms. Tibbetts’s blood in the trunk of his car, could be sentenced to life in prison without parole when he is sentenced on July 15.

During the 2018 midterm elections, President Donald J. Trump and other Republicans seized on the arrest of Mr. Bahena Rivera, who had been described by the authorities as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, to rail against illegal immigration and push for tougher laws and the construction of a border wall.

In a column in The Des Moines Register in September 2018, Ms. Tibbetts’s father, Rob Tibbetts, encouraged the debate on immigration. “But,” he added, “do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”

Ms. Tibbetts, a psychology student and summer camp counselor, was last seen while on a run on the evening of July 18, 2018, in Brooklyn, a small town between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Her family reported her missing the next day.

Her disappearance confounded officials, who said they had conducted more than 500 interviews and searched through farms and cornfields. Investigators appealed to the public for help, creating a website where people could leave tips. Ms. Tibbetts’s family even canvassed the Iowa State Fair with fliers, T-shirts and buttons, hoping to generate leads.

The authorities announced on Aug. 21, 2018, that Mr. Bahena Rivera had led them to Ms. Tibbetts’s body. Prosecutors said Mr. Bahena Rivera told investigators that her body had been in his trunk, where blood that matched her DNA was found. Mr. Bahena Rivera’s car was also captured on a home-security camera in the area where she was last seen running, prosecutors said.

Mr. Bahena Rivera testified during the trial that he had not killed Ms. Tibbetts. He said that two armed and masked men had confronted him in his home and had ordered him to drive them to Brooklyn, where one of them killed Ms. Tibbetts, put her body in his trunk and then ordered Mr. Bahena Rivera to drive to a cornfield, according to The Des Moines Register.

ImageCristhian Bahena Rivera, center, listening as Scott Brown, the assistant attorney general, right, delivers his closing arguments in Davenport, Iowa, on Thursday.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, center, listening as Scott Brown, the assistant attorney general, right, delivers his closing arguments in Davenport, Iowa, on Thursday.Credit...Pool photo by Charlie Neibergall

Mr. Bahena Rivera’s account of a home invasion was the same one he had told his defense lawyers since August 2018, one of those lawyers, Chad Frese, said. But in a news conference after the verdict, Mr. Bahena Rivera’s other lawyer, Jennifer Frese, seemed to acknowledge that Mr. Bahena Rivera’s account of an armed home invasion might have sounded far-fetched to the jury.

“I mean, if we were going to make something up, we would have came up with something better than that,” she said. Mr. Frese said, however, that it was not a difficult choice to put Mr. Bahena Rivera on the stand. “We had to get something up there and we thought the jury needed to hear directly from him,” he said.

Mr. Frese acknowledged it had been an “extraordinarily difficult” case for the defense team.

“I mean, we had a situation where our client gave a statement, and he had her DNA in the trunk and he led them to the body — that’s all pretty incriminating evidence,” he said at the news conference.

Mr. Bahena Rivera’s lawyers said they planned to appeal the verdict.

“We can tell you that, getting to know Cristhian Bahena, we are very surprised that he would be the kind of person that would commit a crime like this,” Mr. Frese said. “He is nothing but a soft-spoken, respectful, kind person.”

Scott Brown, who prosecuted the case, said at a news conference after the verdict that he had barely slept during the trial, as he worried about the outcome. But the trial, he said, was “not about us” but about finding justice for Ms. Tibbetts and her family.

“Even though we would never have the ability to bring Mollie back, we hope, moving forward, that they know the person that did this to her is going to be held fully accountable,” he said.