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Murder Charges Filed In Mollie Tibbetts' Death; Police Say Suspect Was In The U.S. Illegally

Kate Payne / IPR
Investigators believe an undocumented immigrant abducted and killed Mollie Tibbetts. Twenty-four-year-old Cristhian Rivera faces a first degree murder charge in the killing of the 20-year-old University of Iowa student..

Iowa law enforcement officers have charged an undocumented immigrant with first degree murder in the case of Mollie Tibbetts, who had been missing for more than a month. On Tuesday morning, 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera of rural Poweshiek County led investigators to a body covered in corn stalks in a cornfield southeast of Brooklyn, Iowa. The city of 1,400 is Tibbetts’ hometown and the last place where she was seen while jogging on the evening of July 18th. Investigators have not yet confirmed the identity of the remains, but they believe them to be that of Mollie Tibbetts.

Investigators say their search lead to Rivera after they acquired surveillance camera footage provided by an individual in the community. Investigators say the footage showed Mollie running, as well as the travel patterns of a vehicle believed to belong to Rivera. After reviewing the video, they determined that Rivera was one of the last people to see her running. In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Rick Rahn said officers conducted a “lengthy interview” with Rivera, who then showed them where the body was.

“After we got done interviewing Mr. Rivera, he led us to her location. And that location was near 460th Street, or Avenue, in rural Poweshiek County.”

According to Rahn, Rivera told officers he saw Tibbetts running in rural Poweshiek County, and that he approached her while she was running and “ran alongside of her or behind her."

“At one point he tells us that Mollie grabbed ahold of her phone and said ‘you need to leave me alone. I’m going to call the police.' And the she took off running. He in turn chased her down and then he tells us that at some point in time he blacks out. And then he comes to near an intersection which we believe he then placed Mollie,” Rahn said.

Investigators said Rivera told them he had seen Mollie before, but they would not comment on whether Rivera has a previous criminal history; whether he faced previous deportation orders; or to what extent he may have known Mollie Tibbetts before allegedly abducting her.

Even in a community where “everybody knows everybody”, Rahn said Rivera kept to himself, and that investigators are looking more deeply into his background.

“I know that he was working. Beyond that I’m not sure what he was doing. Coming and going," Rahn said.

Rivera is being held in the Poweshiek County Jail, where he faces charges filed in the Poweshiek County District Court. According to Rahn, prosecutors with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office will prosecute the case. Iowa does not have the death penalty; first degree murder charges carry the penalty of life without the possibility of parole.

In the days since Mollie Tibbetts disappeared, a team of dozens of local, state and federal officers have fielded more than 4,000 leads and conducted hundreds of interviews. Rahn recognized the support of the community in embracing the Tibbetts family and in cooperating with investigators. Rahn said the discovery has been difficult for Mollie’s family.

“We get to know the family. We get to know Mollie," he said. "We just spoke to the family and I told them they raised a great daughter. I mean she was a phenomenal individual. So we are saddened for the family.”

Even before the body was found and charges were filed, the case of the 20-year-old University of Iowa student had reverberated far beyond Iowa. National media outlets have followed the developments of the investigation. On a visit to Des Moines last week, Vice President Mike Pence met with the Tibbetts family, telling them “you’re on the hearts of every American."

Since Tuesday’s announcement leaders inside and outside of Iowa are highlighting the fact that an undocumented immigrant has been implicated in the alleged murder of Tibbetts. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds released a written statement Tuesday saying her heart goes out to the family, and that the country’s immigration system is at fault.

“As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry. We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie’s killer,” Reynolds written statement reads in part.

Joe Gruters, a Florida state legislator and a co-chairman of President Trump's re-election campaign in Florida posted on Twitter simply: "Time to build the wall."

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter