Judge hears request for new trial in Mollie Tibbetts case

Mollie Tibbetts (left) and Cristhian Bahena Rivera. AP images.

The lead investigator in the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts says he's confident the right man was convicted of murder and rejects claims that her abduction could be tied to two other men.

Posted: Jul 27, 2021 1:19 PM
Updated: Jul 27, 2021 8:56 PM

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The lead investigator in the 2018 death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts expressed confidence Tuesday that the right man was convicted, rejecting defense claims that her abduction could be tied to two other local men.

Division of Criminal Investigation agent Trent Vileta said that had they known, detectives searching for Tibbetts in 2018 would have looked into another woman’s claim that she’d been lured by a man from Tibbetts’ small hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, weeks earlier and held in a nearby home for sex trafficking.

But the woman’s complaint did not lead to criminal charges and Vileta said it should be disregarded given the evidence tying local farmhand Cristhian Bahena Rivera to Tibbetts’ abduction and stabbing death.

Vileta noted that Bahena Rivera partially confessed to stalking Tibbetts while she was out for a run, killing her and dumping her body in a cornfield, where he led investigators after a lengthy interrogation in August 2018. He said that Bahena Rivera’s statements were “completely corroborated from start to finish.”

“Cristhian Rivera murdered Mollie Tibbetts,” Vileta testified at a hearing on Bahena Rivera’s request for a new trial.

After hearing hours of testimony Tuesday, Judge Joel Yates said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a written ruling as soon as possible.

Bahena Rivera’s lawyers sought to link Tibbetts’ death to the other young woman’s report of being kidnapped and sexually assaulted in the summer of 2018, and the recent disappearance of an 11-year-old boy from the same county. A 50-year-old suspected methamphetamine dealer has been investigated in both cases but hasn't been charged in either, and prosecutors say he has no tie to Tibbetts at all.

Yates told Bahena Rivera’s lawyers at times that he was having trouble seeing any relevance to the case against their client.

Jurors found Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder after a two-week trial in May. They rejected his testimony in which he claimed that two masked men kidnapped him at gunpoint from his trailer, forced him to drive to where Tibbetts was running on a rural road, killed her, put her body in his trunk and made him dispose of it.

Bahena Rivera, who illegally entered the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager, said he didn't tell investigators about the two men earlier because they had threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend and young daughter.

He was to be sentenced to life in prison earlier this month. But at the end of his trial, two new witnesses came forward independently of one another and told police that a local 21-year-old man, Gavin Jones, told them he had killed Tibbetts. Defense lawyers requested a new trial based on that and other newly discovered information, and Yates agreed to postpone sentencing while he considered their request.

One of those witnesses, inmate Arne Maki, testified Tuesday that Jones told him of his involvement last year when they were both held at the Keokuk County Jail. Jones said he and another man stabbed Tibbetts after she was held at a sex trafficking “trap house” where they were staying and framed Bahena Rivera for the death, Maki testified. An older man in charge of the house had ordered her killed, Maki said.

Maki said he came forward after seeing news clips about Bahena Rivera’s testimony in which he said two other men were responsible for the crime. Maki, 46, said he was getting no benefit for his testimony, saying he wanted to “do the right thing.”

“I just want to say one thing, my thoughts and prayers go out to the Tibbetts family,” Maki said, after his testimony concluded.

Jones has denied any involvement and prosecutors worked Tuesday to clear him. Prosecutor Bart Klaver noted that Jones was in a rehabilitation facility in the summer of 2018 and then in an assisted living facility under state supervision. They also noted that Tibbetts was not cut up and wrapped in plastic, as Maki testified that Jones had told him.

Vileta said that neither Jones nor the 50-year-old man came up during the investigation. Under cross-examination, he said investigators hadn't tested their DNA to determine whether either is linked to two unidentified samples found along with Tibbetts' blood in the trunk of Bahena Rivera's vehicle.

Bahena Rivera's DNA was not a match, and investigators never recovered a murder weapon. At trial, a state crime lab analyst testified that it wouldn't be unusual for others' DNA to be in the trunk, which contained a football, a fishing pole and other items.

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