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The search for Mollie Tibbetts drew national interest.
Young, bright and described as “everyone’s counselor,” Tibbetts, 20, was a college student from rural Iowa whose missing person case involved hundreds of community members in her search and drew national media to Brooklyn, Iowa, about an hour outside Des Moines.
Tibbetts had disappeared while out on a run on July 18, 2018. The monthlong search to find her ended on Aug. 21, when a Mexican native, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, was charged with first-degree murder. Rivera, then 24, was in the U.S. working illegally on a dairy farm at the time of her death.
Bahena Rivera’s arrest, which came just as the midterm elections were heating up, thrust the case into the divisive immigration debate. That in turn complicated the investigation, Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Trent Vileta testified Monday in Bahena Rivera’s trial.
“In 2018, the political environment was pretty hostile toward our immigrant community,” he said. “And we were concerned that any contact with police or anyone from the government would cause them fear.”
President Donald Trump said Bahena Rivera’s arrest was evidence of the need to crack down on Mexicans entering the United States illegally and to build a border wall.
“You heard about today, with the illegal alien coming in from, very sadly, from Mexico,” he said at a Virginia rally the day Bahena Rivera was charged. “And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman … The laws are so bad … The immigration laws are such a disgrace.”
From Mollie Tibbetts’ father:Don’t distort her death to advance racist views
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds voiced similar sentiments.
“We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can (to) bring justice to Mollie’s killer,” she said in 2018.
Law enforcement feared immigrants ‘wouldn’t trust us … probably rightly so’
The immigration angle wasn’t lost on the law enforcement agents who were digging for clues on Tibbetts’ whereabouts and investigating statements by Rivera that led to the discovery of her body, according to Vileta, who oversaw the investigation.
On Monday, Vileta repeated the worry under cross-examination by defense attorney Chad Frese.
“There was talk — a lot of political talk — of deporting millions of good, hardworking people just because of their immigration status,” he said. “And we had this huge fear that if we had contact with the immigrant community, that they wouldn’t trust us … probably rightly so.”
Tibbetts’ father, Rob Tibbetts, said at the time that his daughter would have “vehemently opposed” such anti-immigrant views. She would have considered them profoundly racist, he wrote in a column for the Des Moines Register.
Language barrier also a factor
Also complicating the investigation — and perhaps delaying it — was the lack of Spanish-speaking investigators, which eventually led the group probing Tibbetts’ disappearance to call in Iowa City officer Pamela Romero, who was fluent in the language, Vileta said. Romero had also struck up a rapport with the suspect, Vileta said.
“Cristhian Rivera became engaged with her very easily,” he said Monday. “He seemed more comfortable with her. And often, with these investigations, we have to make kind of a gut call and go with … our instincts.”
With that, Romero became a key piece to allegedly solving the disappearance and ultimately murder of Tibbetts, Vileta testified.
Bahena Rivera’s native language also explained why, when investigators did make their way to Yarrabee Farms, where he worked, they collected DNA evidence only from Hispanic workers.
Vileta said they collected the samples since many of the workers were migrant laborers who moved around a lot, and there was a chance they would lose track of potential witnesses or persons of interest.
More political fallout:
Romero conducted an 11-hour interview with Bahena Rivera, with Sgt. Jeff Fink and Vileta supervising, eventually eliciting an alleged admission that he knew where the body was. That led to a drive to the cornfield where Tibbetts’ body was found.
After finding her body about 50 yards into the field, Bahena Rivera was properly informed of his Miranda rights — he hadn’t been before — and was arrested for Tibbetts’ murder. Miranda rights include the right to remain silent and the right to consult with an attorney.
Investigators have testified they began focusing on Bahena Rivera after finding video surveillance that showed Tibbetts jogging the night of July 18, 2018. The video also showed a black Malibu driving several times around the neighborhood where she was last spotted.
Officials tracked the car to Bahena Rivera, and Tibbetts’ blood allegedly was found inside the trunk, according to court documents and testimony.
A murder weapon has never been found.
‘Mollie Tibbetts had probably the nicest text messages we’d ever read’
The agent’s testimony, which opened the second week of Bahena Rivera’s trial, was the most extensive accounting so far of the investigation that started as a missing person case and ended with a murder charge.
Vileta’s comments came during questioning about what led authorities to the dairy farm in search of Bahena Rivera on Aug. 20, 2018.
The search began with a missing person’s call, which led investigators to develop a “victimology,” or profile, of Tibbetts — meaning officers probed her background, including phone records and other computer-related material.
Vileta said agents found nothing but positives about Tibbetts. No abusive relationships. No drug use. Nothing that would suggest she was in imminent danger.
“Mollie Tibbetts had probably the nicest text messages we’d ever read,” Vileta said. “We had a hard time finding anything negative about Mollie Tibbetts.”
During questioning by Frese, Vileta was asked about a number of other men investigators looked at, including a man who lives near where Tibbetts’ body was found. Investigators received several tips that the man had a history of mistreating women and children, and even that he had a “torture room” hidden in his home, but Vileta said he and other investigators walked through the home and found no such room or other evidence connecting him to the case.
When the state resumed direct examination, prosecutor Scott Brown emphasized that, unlike Bahena Rivera, there were no admissions or DNA evidence connecting any of the other men to Tibbetts’ death.
“Did anyone else give information that Mollie Tibbetts was in the trunk of their car?” Brown asked, slapping his table at one point for emphasis. Vileta said that only Bahena Rivera provided such information.
Graphic testimony from medical examiner, forensic pathologist
Jurors also heard and saw graphic testimony Monday about the injuries that led to Tibbetts’ death. Bahena Rivera allegedly stabbed Mollie Tibbetts nine to 12 times through her skull and in her chest and elsewhere with a single-edged knife blade, according to testimony Monday, including from state Medical Examiner Dennis Klein.
Tibbetts also had a wound to the hand, suggesting she put up a struggle before being slain. Klein said hot, humid conditions at the time her body was found in August likely accelerated the decomposition of her body.
Also testifying was FBI agent Kevin Horan, a specialist in tracking cell phones, who told of how investigators tracked Tibbetts’ phone from the night she disappeared.
The state rested its case after hearing from forensic pathologist Heather Garvin, who testified that the markings on Tibbetts’ bones were consistent with a stabbing with a sharp object.
Judge Joel Yates closed out Monday’s proceedings by denying a defense motion for a directed verdict. The defense argued the state had failed to make a case to warrant the charges facing their client. But Yates said the state has established a “prima facie” case strong enough for the jury to consider.
The defense is expected to deliver its opening statement Tuesday morning and to call, among others, Dalton Jack, Tibbetts’ boyfriend, back to the stand.
The trial is scheduled to last through the end of the week. If convicted, Bahena Rivera faces life in prison.
► More from the Register’s Rekha Basu:Instead of blaming immigration for Mollie Tibbetts’ death, blame misogyny
Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest Criminal Justice Reporter for USA Today Network.