Law enforcement officials in Iowa charged a man on Tuesday with murdering 20-year-old college student Mollie Tibbetts, saying he admitted to pursuing her as she ran on a country road and eventually led them to the field where a body they believe to be hers was hidden under cornstalks.
The suspect was identified as 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who authorities said was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Rivera worked at a local farm for the past four years, according to the Associated Press. Authorities also spelled Rivera’s first name as Christian.
He was charged with first-degree murder, with a potential penalty of life in prison, according to Rick Rahn, a special agent in charge for the sector at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
Tibbetts, who was studying psychology the University of Iowa, had been missing since leaving for a run last month from her boyfriend’s house in Brooklyn, Iowa, a small town of about 1,500.
The case unraveled in dramatic fashion on Tuesday as reports emerged in the morning that authorities had found Tibbetts’s body, followed by an afternoon announcement that Rivera had been arrested and charged.
Rahn declined to give many details about Tibbetts’s killing, citing the ongoing investigation and saying that her body had yet to be formally identified. He said that Rivera told investigators that he saw her running, approached her, and ran alongside or behind her, even relaying to authorities that Tibbetts had grabbed her phone and threatened to call the police. He continued to pursue her and then abducted her, Rahn said.
For more than a month after Tibbetts disappeared on July 18, federal, state and local authorities scoured the rural county, sifting through electronic data from her Fitbit, cellphone and social media accounts for any clue about what happened to her.
Rahn said that investigators had talked to hundreds of people and received more than 4,000 tips, but the break in the case came within the last two weeks when they found someone with a security camera system while canvassing a neighborhood.
The cameras captured images of Tibbetts running, as well as a black Chevy Malibu that investigators said they traced to Rivera, informing a determination that Rivera was one of the last people to see her running, Rahn said. They conducted a lengthy interview with Rivera on Monday after approaching him for the first time, in which he told them about seeing her running and how he pursued her.
“He was very compliant,” Rahn said. “He was willing to talk to us. There was no fight or struggle of any kind.”
But the account Rivera gave investigators has some significant gaps in it, according to an affidavit filed in district court. Rivera told them that he panicked after Tibbetts said she was going to call the police and “blocked” his “memory,” the affidavit said. His memory picks up again at an intersection where he noticed a headphone earpiece in his lap and realized he had put Tibbetts in his trunk, where he found her with blood on her head, it said. He then dragged her into a secluded place in a cornfield, where he left her face up and covered her with corn stalks.
Rahn said Rivera led officials to her body after they were done interviewing him. He also said that officials believed that Rivera was employed but declined to specify how or with whom.
The results of an autopsy are pending, and Rahn did not specify a cause of death. Rivera is being held at the Poweshiek County jail in lieu of a $1 million cash bond.
A representative for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency lodged an immigration detainer on Rivera with local authorities after his arrest on Tuesday.
Rivera worked at Yarrabee Farms in Brooklyn, Iowa, the farm’s president Eric Lang told the AP. He was in good standing, according to Lang, and had passed the government’s E-Verify system. Lang is the brother of Craig Lang, a “prominent Iowa farmer and GOP official” who recently lost the 2018 Republican primary to become Iowa’s agriculture secretary.
The case seems certain to add fuel to the already explosive and racially tinged debate about immigration, as President Trump’s border wall, which he touts as a symbol of security, remains an unfulfilled and unfunded campaign promise.
At a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday night, Trump referred to the killing and the arrest of the “illegal alien” from Mexico.
“You saw what happened to that beautiful, incredible young woman. Should have never happened. Illegally in our country,” he said. “The immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting them changed.”
“Heartbroken by the news about Mollie Tibbetts,” Vice President Pence wrote on Twitter. “We commend the swift action by local, state, & federal investigators working in Iowa in apprehending an illegal immigrant, who’s now charged with first-degree murder.”
The broad contours of Tibbetts’s death are reminiscent of the case of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old white woman whose 2015 death, after she was struck by a bullet in a popular area of San Francisco, has become a cri de coeur for Trump and other conservatives and proponents of harsher immigration laws. An undocumented immigrant, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was later convicted on a gun charge related to Steinle’s death. Zarate had already been deported from the United States five times.
Tibbetts was born in San Francisco and moved to the Iowa town with her mother when she was in second grade. She won state speech competitions, was involved in theater and ran cross-country.
Christopher Ingraham and Philip Bump contributed to this report.