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Court Hears Arguments Over Evidence In Tibbetts Murder Case

Investigators in the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts were questioned in Poweshiek County court Wednesday as defense attorneys pushed to suppress evidence that led to murder charges against Christhian Bahena Rivera.

Tibbetts’ body was recovered last August, just over a month after she went missing after going for a run near the town of Brooklyn, Iowa. Bahena Rivera allegedly attacked Tibbetts after following her on her jogging route. 

Bahena Rivera led police officers to the rural corn field where Tibbetts' body was found, but his attorneys claimed at Wednesday’s hearing that he was coerced into taking authorities to that location after being questioned over the course of 11 hours and given an incomplete warning of his Miranda rights. They argued that Bahena Rivera, who only speaks Spanish, never fully understood the situation or his rights as they were explained by a Spanish-speaking officer serving as an interpreter.

They are asking the judge to strike the evidence found as a result of that interview, including the discovery of Tibbetts’ body. Defense attorney Chad Frese questioned Poweshiek County Deputy Steve Kivi about whether Tibbetts’ remains would have been found without Bahena Rivera’s help.

“You had seven officers out there in this corn field that day looking for Ms. Tibbetts and you’re having a hard time finding her, fair? And you knew the general area where she was, fair? Yet, it took Mr. Bahena to pinpoint the location. Fair to say?” Frese said. “Yes,” Kivi replied.

County and state investigators said under questioning by prosecutors that Bahena Rivera’s interview was conducted fairly. They said he volunteered to talk when officers came to Yarrabee Dairy Farm where he worked. They said that in his time under questioning at the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s office he never asked for an attorney or to contact family and that he was not read his Miranda rights when the interview started because he was not considered a suspect.

That changed, they said, after blood was identified in the trunk of a black Chevy Malibu he had been driving, and the interview stalled. Bahena Rivera, who is unauthorized to be in the United States, was placed under a detaining order by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Bahena Rivera was then told his rights by a Spanish-speaking Iowa City police officer, Pamela Romero, who failed to include all parts of the Miranda Warning. Assistant attorney general Scott Brown asked Iowa DCI agent Trent Vileta, who helped lead the investigation, whether that was a deliberate attempt to mislead Bahena Rivera.

“Was there a plan to try to obtain an unwarned statement from Christhian Rivera?” Brown said. “No, we all believed that she said it correctly,” Vileta answered. Vileta later added that Bahena Rivera was informed of his rights in Spanish a second time after taking officers to the field where Tibbetts’ body was found covered by corn leaves.

The judge in the case will hear more testimony Thursday before deciding how to treat the evidence related to the interview. Bahena Rivera is schedule to stand trial for Tibbetts’ murder in February in Woodbury County.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa