Ryan J. Foley, Associated Press, August 30, 2021
A man was sentenced to life in prison without parole Monday in the abduction and killing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, three years after she disappeared while out for an evening run.
Judge Joel Yates’ sentence for Cristhian Bahena Rivera was mandatory for a first-degree murder conviction in Iowa, which does not have the death penalty. The 27-year-old former farmhand, who testified that he came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico as a teenager, has been jailed since his arrest in August 2018.
Tibbetts’ mother, Laura Calderwood, addressed Bahena Rivera in a victim impact statement read to the court.
“Mollie was a young woman who simply wanted to go for a quiet run on the evening of July 18 and you chose to violently and sadistically end that life,” she wrote.
She said the killing caused Hispanic workers to flee the area in fear, prevented Mollie’s boyfriend from being able to give her the engagement ring he had purchased, and meant her father would never walk his only daughter down the aisle.
Bahena Rivera told investigators that he approached Tibbetts because he found her attractive, and that he fought her after she threatened to call the police. He said he then blacked out and came to as he was driving with her body in his trunk.
Prosecutors suggested Bahena Rivera had a sexual motive, noting Tibbetts was wearing only socks and a sports bra and that her legs were spread when her body was found. They built their case around the surveillance video, his partial confession and DNA evidence of Tibbetts’ blood in his trunk.
Bahena Rivera’s lawyers argued that his confession was false and coerced, and their client gave surprise testimony at trial sharing a different account. Bahena Rivera testified that two masked men kidnapped him from his trailer at gunpoint, made him drive while they attacked Tibbetts, instructed him on where to dispose of her body, and told him to stay quiet or that his young daughter and ex-girlfriend would be killed.
The defense sought to cast suspicion on several others, including Tibbetts’ boyfriend and a local deputy who lives next to where Tibbetts’ body was found.
Prosecutors called Bahena Rivera’s testimony a work of fiction and a unanimous 12-member jury found him guilty.