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In Opening Testimony, Tibbetts' Boyfriend Denies Involvement In Her Disappearance

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to testimony, through an English-to-Spanish interpreter during his trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport on Wednesday. Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts.

Prosecutors began building their case Wednesday that a farm hand and undocumented immigrant from Mexico was the person who killed Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts almost three years ago. In opening statements, attorneys said that DNA evidence would play a key role in the case and would link Cristhian Bahena Rivera to Tibbetts’ disappearance while she was on a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver presented the opening statements for the state’s case Wednesday, recounting how the search for Tibbetts in July of 2018 turned into a massive operation. The 20-year-old University of Iowa student old didn’t show up for work at a daycare in Grinnell on the morning of July 19, prompting calls to law enforcement that ultimately set off a multi-agency investigation.

After days and weeks of searching, Klaver told the jury that it was security camera footage that gave investigators a tip: a video that showed the “specter” of a jogger believed to be Mollie also showed a black Chevy Malibu with chrome door handles and nonstandard rims.

“As they scoured that video for any other clue as to Mollie’s disappearance, they noticed a certain vehicle appeared again and again and again on that video,” Klaver said. “It was a black Chevy Malibu.”

Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver makes his opening statement during the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport on Wednesday.

Driving on I-80, an investigator saw the car and questioned the driver, who was Bahena Rivera. In an interview with law enforcement, Klaver said that Bahena Rivera admitted to following Tibbetts. When she threatened to call the cops, he became angry, Klaver said. Investigators say that Bahena Rivera admitted to taking Tibbetts’ bloodied body out of his trunk and hiding her in a corn field, and said that he ultimately led officers to her body.

“Blood was found on the trunk liner and in the trunk,” Klaver said. “Analysis was done of that blood, DNA analysis, and it was matched to the DNA taken from the body. It was Mollie’s blood in the defendant’s Chevy Malibu.”

Bahena Rivera has pleaded not guilty to the first degree murder charge in Tibbetts’ death. His defense attorneys did not make their opening statements Wednesday, opting to defer until the state rests its case.

Tibbetts’ boyfriend and his brother among first witnesses called

The state called six witnesses Wednesday, including a Poweshiek County sheriff’s officer, a hair salon owner thought to be the last person to see Tibbetts alive, a cousin of Bahena Rivera's, as well as Tibbetts’ boyfriend Dalton Jack and his brother Blake Jack.

Blake Jack testified first, recounting how at the time of Tibbetts’ disappearance, Dalton had been living with him and his now-wife at their home in Brooklyn, and that Tibbetts often stayed with them as well. At the time of her disappearance, she had been watching the dogs, while the others were staying out of town for various work trips.

Blake said he was the one who called law enforcement, after coming home from a job site in Newton when he was notified Tibbetts hadn’t shown up for work. His home became something of a meeting place for friends searching for her. Dalton Jack arrived home later on the evening of July 19, after returning from a construction job site in Dubuque.

In his testimony, Blake Jack denied that his brother was “known to get into fights” or had anger issues and said he didn’t notice anything unusual between Dalton and Mollie at the time of her disappearance.

“I don't think she would be staying in our house if they weren't getting along,” Jack said.

Tibbetts’ boyfriend says he had nothing to do with her disappearance

A photograph of Mollie Tibbetts is shown in the courtroom as Dalton Jack testifies on Wednesday. Jack was Tibbetts' boyfriend at the time of her death.

In his testimony, Dalton Jack described Tibbetts as the “love of his life” and said that he planned to marry her one day. He also acknowledged that the relationship had its issues: that he had cheated on her and that in fact the couple had been considering breaking up in the month before she went missing. He denied any involvement in her disappearance.

Jack, now a sergeant in the U.S. Army based at Fort Bragg, recalled how he had been working construction at the time of Tibbetts’ disappearance. He testified that on the night she was abducted, he had been playing yard games and drinking beer at a motel in Dubuque with others on the construction crew. The last communication he received from her was a Snapchat message, which he said he viewed at about 10:30 on the night of July 18.

But under questioning by Bahena Rivera’s defense team, Jack acknowledged that the accounts he told law enforcement have been inconsistent, and that he had previously told officers he was watching movies in his motel room on the evening Tibbetts disappeared.

Bahena Rivera’s attorneys sought to paint Jack as a reluctant and unreliable witness who was unable or unwilling to recall details of the hours and days around Tibbetts’ disappearance.

“When I was asked if I wanted to be here voluntarily, I said ‘absolutely not’,” Jack told defense attorney Chad Frese.

“So you did not want to be here voluntarily?” Frese asked.

“No, I didn’t want to be in the same room as your defendant there,” Jack replied.

“Oh. So you didn’t want to come give testimony to get justice for…the love of your life?” Frese asked.

“No,” Jack replied.

“You wouldn’t be here to fight for her?” Frese asked.

“No,” he said.

Defense attorney Jennifer Frese (left) talks to Chad Frese as Chad cross examines Mollie Tibbetts' boyfriend Dalton Jack on Wednesday.

Defense attorneys worked to cast doubt and suspicion on Jack, prompting him to testify that he had a history of fighting and anger issues.

He also testified that Tibbetts had been upset about an affair he had with another woman while they were together, telling him three days before she went missing how sad she was about it.

In a line of questioning about how Jack learned Tibbetts hadn’t shown up for work, Frese said that a coworker of Tibbetts’ texted Jack on July 19 asking, “Dalt is Mollie alive?” Jack replied that he didn’t recall the message.

Dalton testified he had nothing to do with Tibbetts’ disappearance, denied that either he or she had any connection to Bahena Rivera, and appeared to grow emotional reiterating how he didn’t want to even be in the same room as the defendant.

“I wholeheartedly believe he’s guilty,” Jack said.

Jury includes three Latino members

According to demographic information provided by the court, the jury for the trial includes eight female jurors and seven male jurors, for a total of 15 people, three of whom will be designated as alternates. The alternates will not find out their status until it’s time for the jury to deliberate.

Among the jurors are three people who identify as Hispanic or Latino; the rest identify as white. Their ages range from 19 to 71 years old.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter