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Bahena Rivera Takes The Stand, Blames Masked Men For Tibbetts' Death

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Kelsey Kremer
/
The Des Moines Register
Cristhian Bahena Rivera testifies from the witness stand, on Wednesday in Davenport.

Testifying in court Wednesday, the man facing a first degree murder charge in the 2018 death of Mollie Tibbetts denied killing her, alleging instead that two masked men were responsible for her death. Cristhian Bahena Rivera testified that two unidentified men forced him at gunpoint to drive them around as they abducted the Iowa college student and put her body in his trunk.

For the first time Wednesday, Bahena Rivera took the witness stand in a Scott County courtroom and claimed that two unknown men were responsible for Tibbetts’ disappearance and death, and that he had been forced to participate.

Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student known for her friendly and caring demeanor, went missing while on a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa on the evening of July 18, 2018.

Bahena Rivera, a farm worker and undocumented immigrant from Guerrero, Mexico, testified that on that evening, he stepped out of the bathroom at his home in rural Poweshiek County to find two unknown men standing there, armed and wearing some sort of masks over their faces. The larger of the men was armed with a gun, the smaller one armed with a knife.

Bahena Rivera alleges masked, armed men responsible for Tibbetts’ death

Bahena Rivera said he didn’t know the men, who spoke English, but that they forced him to drive them around in his black Chevy Malibu, directing him out to the eastside of Brooklyn where they followed a jogger, who was Tibbetts.

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Kelsey Kremer
Cristhian Bahena Rivera testifies from the witness stand on Wednesday.

Bahena Rivera says the men ordered him to pull over, and then the smaller man armed with a knife ran down the road towards the jogger and out of view. Bahena Rivera and the larger man stayed in the car, where Bahena Rivera heard the man muttering to himself, saying, “Come on, Jack."

Tibbetts’ boyfriend is named Dalton Jack, but Bahena Rivera says he is not alleging that Jack was one of the masked men, and maintains he doesn’t know who they are.

About 10 to 12 minutes later, Bahena Rivera says the knife-wielding man reappeared. The two masked men loaded something into his trunk and directed him to keep driving, Bahena Rivera claimed. They drove gravel roads out of Brooklyn, eventually directing Bahena Rivera to pull off next to a cornfield.

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Kelsey Kremer
Defense attorney Jennifer Frese questions a witness on Wednesday.

Bahena Rivera said the men took his phone and his keys and made threats against his daughter and her mother, his ex-girlfriend Iris Gamboa, before running off towards a gravel road.

“Before they leave, one of them tells me not to say anything about what had happened. That they knew Iris and that they knew my daughter. That if I said something they would take care of them,” Bahena Rivera said through an interpreter.

Bahena Rivera said after they left he looked inside his trunk and found Mollie Tibbetts, who he said was so gravely wounded he could not save her. He said he saw “a little movement” at first but that soon there were no signs of life from her. He then picked her up and carried her into the cornfield, where he covered her with cornstalks. He said that at the time her body was fully clothed in a sports bra and running shorts, with just one shoe falling off.

Bahena Rivera covered her with cornstalks, he said, because he “didn’t want her to be too exposed to the sun."

He later found his phone and keys in his trunk and eventually returned home, using GPS to find directions.

Bahena Rivera says he was too “scared” to notify law enforcement

When asked why he didn’t alert law enforcement, Bahena Rivera said he was afraid of retaliation against his family and that he ‘didn’t tell a soul’ about the encounter.

“If you weren’t approached you would have taken this night with you to the grave, isn’t that right?” defense attorney Jennifer Frese asked him.

“Most probably,” he replied.

After investigators identified Bahena Rivera’s vehicle on surveillance footage in the area where Tibbetts was running the evening she disappeared and called him in for questioning, he still did not tell them about the masked men.

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Kelsey Kremer
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown cross examines Cristhian Bahena Rivera on Wednesday.

Instead, over the course of an 11-hour interview, he told officers he followed Tibbetts by himself that evening, confronted her on the road, and then “blacked out," coming to later on and remembering her body was in his trunk.

Testifying Wednesday, he said that he was physically drained during the hours-long interview, which followed his 12-hour workday, and that he caved to pressure from officers to tell them what they wanted to hear, ultimately leading them to Tibbetts’ body because he was “very tired” and “wanted it to stop."

During the interview, officers asked if Bahena Rivera was “covering” for anyone but he said he didn’t tell them about the masked men because he was scared they would follow through on the threats made against his daughter.

“Did you intend to tell these men the truth about what really happened that night?” Frese asked him.

“No,” he replied. “Because in my mind, I had my daughter.”

Under questioning from prosecutor Scott Brown, Bahena Rivera said he has no idea how the masked men found out about him and his family, and that he had not heard from them or received any other threats since the encounter.

Defense attorneys again cast doubt on other potential suspect

Throughout the trial, Bahena Rivera’s attorneys have sought to cast doubt on other men that officers looked into over the course of the investigation, including Tibbetts’ boyfriend Dalton Jack, as well as sex offenders in the Poweshiek County area.

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Kelsey Kremer
Jamie Slife answers questions from the witness stand.

On Wednesday, the defense team called to the stand Jamie Slife, a Benton County resident who said she reported three tips to law enforcement in regards to her father, Ron Pexa. Slife testified that Pexa had physically and sexually abused her and her sisters, and had threatened to kill them and her mother.

The cornfield where Tibbetts’ body was found is adjacent to Pexa’s property in southeast Poweshiek County.

Slife testified that it “kept eating at me” knowing “the type of man he is” and knowing that investigators’ search efforts included the area where he lived. She said officers never followed up with her or gave her feedback about her information.

Earlier testimony indicated that officers had talked with Pexa and looked around his home but did not conduct a formal interview with him.

The defense rested its case Wednesday. Judge Joel Yates directed the jurors to return Thursday at 8:30 a.m. to hear closing statements from both sides and to receive jury instructions before beginning their deliberations.