The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mollie Tibbetts relative tells ‘despicable’ partisans not to politicize her distant cousin’s death

Authorities charged Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, with first-degree murder in the death of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts. (Video: Allie Caren, Patrick Martin, Richard Swearinger/The Washington Post)

In the days since her body was found, Mollie Tibbetts has become a talking point for conservatives in the immigration debate, and one of her distant relatives has gone viral for pushing back against the politicization of her death.

After a Mexican immigrant, Cristhian Rivera, was charged with murder in the death of the Iowa college student, conservative figures, including President Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), have pointed to Tibbetts’s slaying as an example of the dangers posed by immigrants who are in the country illegally.

It was a pair of tweets from conservative activist and commentator Candace Owens that sent Sam Lucas over the edge.

Lucas, who is connected to Tibbetts through great-grandparents, wasn’t close to her — nor, she said, was she looking to pick a fight. She just didn’t agree with the politicization of her distant cousin’s slaying.

In the weeks since Tibbetts had disappeared, her extended family had been tethered to Facebook, asking for any help to find the young woman and offering their prayers. They’ve been beside themselves since her body was found, Lucas said, and she was stunned at how quickly political partisans had seized upon her relative’s death.

“I was just like, ‘Holy cow, my family just lost a member and this is the immediate response,' " Lucas told The Washington Post on Wednesday. She thought the reactions were impersonal and disrespectful.

Lucas, a recent University of Missouri graduate, said she felt driven to respond to Owens’s arguments. Her anger was apparent in her tweets, which have amassed tens of thousands of likes and retweets.

In her response, Lucas slammed Owens for using her cousin’s death to vilify immigrants in America.

She added: “and fyi @RealCandaceO, my whole family is hurting right now and you’re not helping. you’re despicable and this is so far from the loving and kind soul that mollie was. my prayers go out to you in hopes that maybe you’ll become a better person. not hedging my bets tho.”

Owens did not respond to requests for comment but replied directly to Lucas on Twitter.

Lucas said she has since been subjected to backlash, including from people online who said they wish she had died instead of Mollie.

Still, she wants it known that she still would have spoken out, even if the backlash had been coming from the left and not the right.

“I wanted to protect my family from this extra grief of politics,” Lucas said. “Even if it was coming from the other side, on some other issue that connected somehow to my cousin, I’d say the same thing.”

Before she sent the tweets, Lucas said she checked with her father and grandmother to see how they felt about the way her cousin’s death was being portrayed.

She’d also seen a Facebook post from Tibbetts’s aunt, Billie Jo Calderwood, urging people to remember that “evil comes in every color.”

Calderwood made the same plea to CNN on Wednesday, saying: “I don’t want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics."

At a vigil in Iowa, one of the slain woman’s friends, Breck Goodman, said Tibbetts wouldn’t have agreed with how her death was being used by conservatives, according to CNN.

“I also know what Mollie stood for ... and she would not approve,” Goodman said. “So I don’t want her death to be used as propaganda. I don’t want her death to be used for more prejudice and for more discrimination, and I don’t think she would want that, either.”

Lucas was trying to do the same thing with her tweets, she said. She was just trying to voice her own frustration; she wasn’t trying to serve as a spokeswoman for her entire family when she tweeted an angry reply to Owens, then added: “attn Trumpists: Mollie’s death is not political propaganda to bring up your ‘build the wall’ bulls---. stop.”

Friends and family attended a memorial service for Mollie Tibbetts on Aug. 22, 2018, at St. Patrick Catholic Church. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Richard Swearinger/The Washington Post)

Tibbetts had been housesitting for her boyfriend in the small Iowa town of Brooklyn before she disappeared. Security camera footage showed the young woman jogging by herself July 18. Rivera, 24, who had been working on farms in the town for several years, told investigators that he saw her running and abducted her, police said. He led law enforcement to a cornfield where her body was hidden.

Rivera’s employer told reporters Wednesday that he used false identification to pass a background check. But his legal status doesn’t have any bearing on what happened to Tibbetts, Lucas said.

“He did happen to be a person who was here without documentation, but that has nothing to do with the fact that this man is a demon and an evil man who took the life of Mollie,” Lucas said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the official White House Twitter account responded to the headlines about Tibbetts’s body being found and Rivera’s arrest by releasing a video that showed parents describing how their children were killed by undocumented immigrants. Another video was released a few hours later, of President Trump invoking the death of Tibbetts as evidence for a need of an immigration crackdown.

“Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family. A person came in from Mexico, illegally, and killed her,” Trump said at a rally in Charleston, W.Va., on Tuesday. “This is one instance of many. We have tremendous crime trying to come through the borders.”

Although she understands their pain and agrees there’s a discussion to be had about immigration in the United States, Lucas doesn’t think it should involve her cousin.

“People are saying, ‘If we had better border control, your cousin would never be dead,’ ” Lucas said. “That may be true but also, a lot of young American women get killed by legal immigrants or people who were born here."