Agent says suspect in 2018 Iowa slaying told her, ‘I did it’

Posted at 1:15 PM, May 20, 2021 and last updated 4:48 PM, July 19, 2023

By RYAN J. FOLEY Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The man charged with killing a University of Iowa student who went missing after going for a run in 2018 led investigators to her body and said that he killed her but couldn’t remember how, an officer testified Thursday.

>>>READ MORE: Mollie Tibbetts Murder Trial Daily Highlights

Cristhian Bahena Rivera initially denied he had ever seen Mollie Tibbetts when he was interrogated a month after her disappearance from her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, officer Pamela Romero testified.

Bahena Rivera eventually admitted that he had driven past Tibbetts three times while she was running on July 18, 2018, describing her as “attractive” and “hot,” Romero said. Within hours, Bahena Rivera led investigators to the cornfield where they discovered Tibbetts’ remains, she said.

Pressed on what had happened to Tibbetts, Bahena Rivera responded, “’I brought you here, didn’t I? So that means that I did it. I don’t remember how I did it’,” Romero testified.

Romero testified on the second day of Bahena Rivera’s first-degree murder trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, as prosecutors used the partial confession and surveillance video to build their case. Bahena Rivera, 26, faces life in prison if convicted of the stabbing death, which inflamed anger over illegal immigration since he was a Mexican national living in the U.S. illegally.

Bahena Rivera’s defense worked to cast suspicion on others, including Tibbetts’ boyfriend and residents who had been investigated because of their past behavior toward women. They are expected to argue that the confession was false and coerced after hours of interrogation.

During questioning at the cornfield, Bahena Rivera told Romero that he followed Tibbetts in his car, got out and started running behind her. Bahena Rivera said that Tibbetts noticed him and attempted to use her cell phone to call police.

“He said that Mollie tried to slap him and was screaming at him,” Romero testified. “Mr. Rivera said this is when he became angry.”

Bahena Rivera told Romero that he remembered the two started fighting but then he blacked out. He said the next thing that he recalled was driving in his car and seeing the earbuds Tibbetts used while running on his legs, and that her body was in his trunk, Romero testified.

A still image, taken from a security camera video, of a black Chevy Malibu is shown in court during the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa, on Thursday, May 20, 2021. Bahena Rivera is charged with first-degree in the death of Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Bahena Rivera told Romero that he did not remember how she got in the vehicle, but that he recalled carrying her body on his shoulder to the cornfield, covering her with leaves and leaving immediately. He said her body felt “like a person that had just fainted” and was bleeding, pointing to his neck when asked why. He said he had taken his shirt off because of the blood.

Romero, then an Iowa City officer, was brought in to question Bahena Rivera because, like him, she was a native of Mexico whose first language was Spanish. She recalled asking Bahena Rivera what he thought as his neighbors and scores of investigators had searched for Tibbetts.

“He just shrugged his shoulders and he goes, ‘I didn’t think about it’,” Romero said.

Earlier Thursday, jurors were shown videos of a woman running and a vehicle later tied to Bahena Rivera driving by her seconds later that investigators called critical to solving the case.

Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent Derek Riessen testified that he obtained the surveillance video from a homeowner on Aug. 14 as part of a canvass of Brooklyn, and began reviewing it with other agents. He said the next day another agent said he believed he saw something significant, and Riessen thought he was kidding.

Additional review showed a person appearing to run through the neighborhood in the distance, entering and leaving the video frame in a split second. Riessen said he determined it was a runner who appeared to have a ponytail and was passing at 7:45 p.m.

About 20 seconds later, a black Chevy Malibu with distinctive chrome rims and door handles drove past. Riessen said that vehicle is on surveillance several times over the next 20 minutes, ultimately going back toward the direction of the runner at a higher rate of speed at 8:07 p.m. He said that Tibbetts, 20, is suspected to have been abducted on a rural road about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away around 8:20 p.m.

Riessen said neither the driver nor the license plate could be identified on the video.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera (right) listens to testimony during his trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa, on Thursday, May 20, 2021. Bahena Rivera is charged with first-degree in the death of Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Poweshiek County Deputy Steve Kivi said he reviewed the video on Aug. 15, after spending a month looking into what happened to Tibbetts, who was living in her hometown over a summer break. The next day, Kivi said he spotted the vehicle outside of Brooklyn getting off of Interstate 80 and followed the driver, who turned out to be Bahena Rivera.

Kivi said Bahena Rivera was cooperative during their discussion that day, calmly denying knowing anything about what happened to Tibbetts. Investigators testified that on Aug. 20 they went to Yarrabee Farms, where Bahena was working in the milk parlor, to interview him and other employees.

DCI agent Scott Green said he was directed by the lead investigator to collect DNA by swabbing the cheek of every worker, who were all Hispanic and numbered about eight. He said he wasn’t sure why he wasn’t asked to obtain DNA from the farm’s white owner or others he interviewed previously in Brooklyn.

Green said that Bahena Rivera agreed to come with him to the sheriff’s office to be interviewed further, and allowed investigators to search the Malibu, his nearby trailer and another vehicle he had driven to work.

Investigators acknowledged that they never found a murder weapon.