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Convicted Killer Of Mollie Tibbetts Sentenced To Life In Prison

Mollie Tibbetts’ mother, Laura Calderwood, sits in the courtroom at the sentencing hearing for Cristhian Bahena Rivera.
Charlie Neibergall
Laura Calderwood (right), mother of Mollie Tibbetts, is comforted as her victim impact statement is read during a sentencing hearing for Cristhian Bahena Rivera at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma.

The man convicted of murdering University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts has been given a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera has been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. The sentencing ends a case that calls back more than three years to the day she was abducted in July 2018 after going for a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.

The sentencing hearing was held in a Poweshiek County courtroom where the gallery was filled with Tibbetts’ family and supporters. Iowa Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown noted during the hearing that life in prison is the mandatory penalty for first-degree murder.

“And I would tell the court that based on the facts and circumstances of this case it is very well deserved,” Brown said.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s life prison sentence comes a little more than three years after he led investigators to the field where Tibbetts’ remains were hidden under cornstalks.

Prosecutors said he was identified as a suspect after security camera footage showed his black Chevy Malibu in the area where Tibbetts was running. An officer who was part of a long interrogation of Bahena Rivera testified that he admitted to approaching Tibbetts and fighting her when she threatened to call police. Tibbetts’ DNA was found in his trunk. A jury convicted him of murder in May.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Brown said he and others who were closely involved in the long-running case are glad for it to be over.

“It’s been a long haul for the family and for those of us that have been prosecuting the case, investigating it, so we’re just very pleased with the result and finally got it to the finish line,” Brown said.

The only victim statement shared during the sentencing hearing came from Tibbetts’ mother, Laura Calderwood. She said she wanted to share the statement to give a voice to her daughter who “simply wanted to go for a quiet run.”

Calderwood described the pain of sharing the news that Mollie’s body was found with her mother, who had been convinced that her granddaughter would be found alive. She asked Rivera to imagine his own daughter, Paulina, and what it would be like to share such a story with his own mother.

“Judy Calderwood’s unwavering faith had been brutally shattered by your senseless act of violence,” Laura Calderwood said in the statement which was read in the courtroom by a victim witness coordinator from the Iowa Attorney General’s office. “Can you imagine, Mr. Rivera, sitting across the table from your madre and telling her Paulina is never coming home?"

Caldwerwood said her daughter's death has had an indelible impact on her family, and suggested the same may be true for Bahena Rivera’s family as well.

“I do hope one day Paulina has the opportunity to become a mother, but how will she ever explain to her children who their grandfather is? This is the legacy you left behind for your only child, Mr. Rivera. I don’t know whose situation is worse,” Calderwood said.

Bahena Rivera sat in the courtroom in handcuffs and a black and white prison uniform and followed the proceedings through an interpreter. He wore a mask but, even so, showed little reaction to the judge’s pronouncement or Calderwood’s statement.

The sentencing was initially scheduled for July but was delayed after Bahena Rivera’s attorneys, Chad and Jennifer Frese, called for a new trial based on testimony from additional witnesses who claimed others were involved in Tibbetts’ death.

Judge Joel Yates ruled that the claims were not supported by the evidence and the new testimony would not have changed the result of the case. He reiterated that position Monday.

“Mr. Bahena Rivera, you and you alone forever changed the lives of those who love Mollie Tibbetts,” Yates said before announcing the sentence.

Bahena Rivera’s attorneys said after the sentencing that they plan to appeal his conviction.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa