Officer Testifies Bahena Rivera Admitted To Killing Tibbetts
A police officer testified Thursday that the man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts in 2018 led investigators to the cornfield where her body was found. Cristhian Bahena Rivera told officers he killed the 20 year old college student, but said he “blacked out” his memory and couldn’t remember how.
In the second day of testimony in the first degree murder trial of Bahena Rivera, investigators detailed how it was home security camera footage that tipped them off to a vehicle that appeared to follow a jogger who they believed to be Tibbetts on the evening she disappeared.
Security footage from the home of Logan Collins on the east side of Brooklyn showed what investigators identified as a black Chevy Malibu with chrome door handles and nonstandard rims, a car that was driven by Bahena Rivera.
When Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office investigator Steve Kivi spotted the car, followed it, and ultimately questioned Bahena Rivera for the first time on August 16, he said that the farm worker was calm, cooperative and denied knowing Tibbetts.
During the interaction, a neighbor helped interpret for Bahena Rivera, who is from Mexico and is in the U.S. without legal documentation.
“He said he had heard that there was a girl missing from Brooklyn but didn't have any knowledge that would be useful to us,” Kivi testified.
Officers say Bahena Rivera led them to the field where Tibbetts’ body was found
Later, on August 20, officers went to Bahena Rivera’s work, Yarrabee Farms, a dairy operation in Brooklyn, to question him further. They took him back to the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office and what followed was an 11-hour interview, which came at the end of a 12-hour work day for Bahena Rivera.
The interview with police continued into the early hours of August 21, when officers say that around 4:30 a.m. Bahena Rivera led them out to a cornfield near 460th Street in the southeastern part of Poweshiek County.
It was there that officers found human remains that were later identified as Tibbetts’.
Officer Pamela Romero, who worked for the Iowa City Police Department at the time, testified that it was over the course of the lengthy interview that Bahena Rivera admitted that he found Tibbetts attractive, that he chased her while she was running and fought with her when she threatened to call the police.
Romero is a native Spanish speaker and said that she and Iowa City police officer Jeff Fink conducted the interview entirely in Spanish.
Officer testifies Bahena Rivera told her: “I did it”
Romero testified that Bahena Rivera said that when he became angry, he “blacked out” his memory, and said he couldn’t recall how he killed Tibbetts.
“The next thing that he told me was that he remember him driving and looking down into his legs and finding the ear buds that belonged to Mollie and that is when he remembered that he had Mollie in the back of his vehicle, in the trunk,” Romero testified.
She said that Bahena Rivera described driving to the cornfield and hiding Tibbetts’ body underneath cornstalks.
“He showed me the cornfield, and he goes, ‘this is the cornfield where I came, took her out of the trunk, carried her on my shoulder, went inside the cornfield, dropped her on the ground, covered her with leaves, and I left right away’,” Romero testified.
Romero said she repeatedly pressed Bahena Rivera for more details about Tibbetts’ death, but he said he could not recall. Investigators never found a murder weapon, though an autopsy determined that Tibbetts was stabbed to death.
“I brought you here, didn’t I?” Romero said that Bahena Rivera told her. “So that means that I did it. I don't remember how I did it.”
Defense attorneys raise questions around interview tactics
In further questioning of Romero, defense attorney Jennifer Frese asked extensively about how officers treated her client over the course of the interview. Romero said she would not characterize the interaction as an “interrogation” but acknowledged she had never before conducted an 11-hour interview.
Romero testified that Bahena Rivera was given eight or nine breaks over the course of the night, was provided with food and water, was allowed to keep his cell phone and was made aware that he could leave at any time.
Referring to transcripts of the interview, Frese established that her client repeatedly told officers he was “sleepy” and had fallen asleep during the interview breaks, though Romero testified that he never fell asleep during her questioning and that he was alert and attentive.
Bahena Rivera’s attorneys appear to be building a case to argue he was sleep deprived and coerced into making the statements. During the jury selection process, they questioned potential jurors about whether they were familiar with false confessions and if they would consider evidence that may demonstrate that Bahena Rivera was subject to coercive tactics.
Romero is expected to be called back to testify further on Friday.
Defense attorneys cast doubt on other potential suspects
During their questioning of the six witnesses the state called Thursday, Bahena Rivera’s attorneys worked to cast doubt and suspicion on other potential suspects, as they had done on Wednesday. They questioned investigators about other men who lived in the area and who had a history of committing violence against women. The men were eventually “cleared” of wrongdoing, investigators testified.
Attorney Chad Frese also posed a line of questioning appearing to suggest that investigators treated Latinos in the area with more suspicion than whites.
When officers visited Yarrabee Farms for an investigative “canvass," they were directed by a supervising agent to obtain a cheek swab from every worker in order to test their DNA. All of the workers were thought to be Hispanic or Latino, testified Scott Green of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
When officers conducted an extensive canvass of the overwhelmingly white town of Brooklyn, going door to door to virtually every residence, they were not directed to obtain cheek swabs from each resident.