Mollie Tibbetts case: Cristhian Bahena Rivera murder trial goes to jury after closing arguments
DAVENPORT, Iowa - The fate of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the suspect charged in the 2018 stabbing death of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts, is now in the hands of the jury after closing arguments wrapped up Thursday.
Prosecutor Scott Brown said in his closing arguments that the testimony revealed "overwhelming evidence" that 26-year-old Bahena Rivera is guilty of murder.
"There weren't two other guys. That's a figment of his imagination," Brown told jurors, saying Bahena Rivera concocted the story to try to explain away damning evidence. "All of the credible evidence points to him."
Bahena Rivera is charged with first-degree murder. Tibbetts, 20, vanished while out running on July 18, 2018, in Brooklyn, Iowa, and investigators recovered her partially naked, decomposing body from a cornfield a month later.
Prosecutors have used the DNA evidence, surveillance video showing Bahena Rivera’s Chevy Malibu driving near where Tibbetts was running, and his partial confession during an 11-hour interrogation to build their case. Tibbetts’ DNA was found on blood spots on the rubber trunk seal and trunk liner of the Malibu.
The defense rested its case Wednesday after Bahena Rivera took the stand and gave a far different narrative than presented by the prosecution. In a surprise development, Bahena Rivera reversed his confession to killing the University of Iowa student and blamed the murder on two armed, masked men during his testimony.
But Brown said the evidence shows that Bahena Rivera drove past Tibbetts while she was running that evening, he found her attractive, tracked her down on a rural road and approached her as she ran.
Brown said that Tibbetts rebuked Bahena Rivera’s advances and threatened to call the police, which made him angry.
"The way he reacts with that anger is to stab this young woman to death and to dump her body in a cornfield," said Brown, an assistant attorney general.
Bahena Rivera knew for five weeks where he had hidden Tibbetts' body under corn stalks in a remote cornfield, as investigators worked to try to find out what had caused the "sweet young woman" to disappear, Brown said.
The closing arguments came after a two-week trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport. The 12-member jury began deliberating Thursday afternoon.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old father of a young daughter, had no criminal history before being charged with first-degree murder in Mollie Tibbetts’ death. (Source: FOX Edge)
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Earlier, prosecutors called one rebuttal witness to establish an alibi for Tibbetts' longtime boyfriend, Dalton Jack, whom the defense has suggested may have been involved.
Jack worked on a bridge project in Dubuque, Iowa, until 7 p.m. on July 18, 2018, about an hour before Tibbetts was abducted and killed in their hometown of Brooklyn, his former supervisor Nick Wilson testified.
Wilson’s testimony suggested that Jack would not have been able to be in Brooklyn when Tibbetts disappeared. Brooklyn is about 140 miles away from Dubuque, or more than a two-hour drive.
Wilson said that after Jack got off of work, he grilled and drank beer with other crew members at a hotel that evening and was at work the next morning at 5:30 a.m.
Bahena Rivera, who faces life in prison if convicted, admitted in his own testimony this week that his black car was the one seen on surveillance video circling Tibbetts while she was jogging. He also acknowledged that she ended up in his car's trunk, that he hid her body in a cornfield, and that he told investigators where to find it a month later.
However, Bahena Rivera denied that he was responsible for the stab wounds to Tibbetts' head, neck and chest that caused her death. Instead, he testified that two armed men entered his home on the evening, dressed in dark clothing and their faces covered. He said one had a gun and the other a knife, and they ordered him into his car.
Bahena Rivera said they forced him to drive into town where they saw a woman jogging — who he now recognizes was Tibbetts. He testified that the men ordered him to stop the car, and the man with a knife got out and was gone for "10 to 12 minutes." The second man stayed in the back seat of the car and grew nervous, saying, "Come on, Jack," he claimed.
RELATED: Mollie Tibbetts: Investigator says lack of Spanish-speaking officers delayed questioning of suspect
The defendant said he didn't know the men's identities, but his lawyers have tried to raise suspicions about Jack, who admitted to an affair with another woman and past anger problems but was cleared by police.
Bahena Rivera told the jurors that he later heard the two men loading something into the trunk and that they ordered him to drive for several miles until they reached a rural area near cornfields.
Bahena Rivera claimed that the two men then got out of the car, told him to wait a few minutes and then leave. He described how the two masked men said "they knew Iris (Gamboa)," who is the mother of his daughter, and his daughter — and "that if I said something, they would take care of them."
He testified that he knew something was in the trunk, and that he put her body in the cornfield after seeing no signs of life. He said he covered her body with corn stalks because "I didn't want her to be too exposed to the sun," and that he then left and never planned to discuss what had happened again.
Bahena Rivera said he left Tibbetts' phone, Fitbit and earbuds on the side of the road.
When asked why he didn’t call the police or let investigators know what happened, Bahena Rivera said he was scared and was worried about his daughter's safety. When previously questioned on Aug. 20, 2018, he said then that had approached Tibbetts as she ran, fought with her after she threatened to call police and then "blacked out" before hiding her body.
He said he agreed to lead investigators to Tibbetts' body early on Aug. 21 because he was tired and wanted the interrogation to end. And he said police had urged him to "put myself in the family's position and to think of" how he would feel if his daughter was missing.
His defense team has questioned the confession and DNA evidence and painted Bahena Rivera as a non-violent family man who crossed the border illegally from Mexico as a teenager in search of a better life.
Defense lawyer Chad Frese told jurors Thursday during his closing arguments that the investigation was sloppy, including Bahena Rivera’s 11-hour interrogation.
"They closed the case but they didn't solve the case," Frese said.
Tibbetts’ disappearance sparked a massive search in the region. The case also inflamed passions over illegal immigration after then-President Donald Trump said Bahena Rivera had exploited lax immigration laws to enter the U.S. from Mexico as a teen.
Tibbetts had been studying psychology and wanted to get a doctorate, her father told news outlets.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.