IOWA CITY, Iowa— A judge sentenced Cristhian Bahena Rivera to life in prison without parole for the murder of college student Mollie Tibbetts, who disappeared while out for an evening jog in 2018.
The 12-member jury unanimously found Bahena Rivera guilty of first degree murder, the mandatory sentencing for which is life in prison. The state of Iowa does not have the death penalty.
Tibbetts’ disappearance sparked massive search efforts in her small hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa in the summer of 2018. She went for a jog on the night of Jul. 18 and did not show up to work at her daycare job the following day, prompting law enforcement and volunteers to begin the search.
Bahena Rivera, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, worked at a nearby dairy farm and became a prime suspect when his vehicle was seen in security camera footage passing Tibbetts multiple times on the night of her disappearance.
In initial statements to investigators, Bahena Rivera claimed that he approached Tibbetts because he found her attractive.
He said he remembered being angry with her, then blacked out and came to with her body in his trunk.
Later he led investigators to the cornfield where he had buried her body.
The autopsy revealed she had died from multiple sharp force injuries.
The defense plans to appeal, arguing that Bahena Rivera’s partial confession was coerced. His new testimony claims that he was approached by two armed masked men who threatened to kill his child and ex-girlfriend if he did not dispose of Tibbetts’ body.
This case became a major talking point in immigration debates following Bahena Rivera’s arrest and was cited by Republicans as a reason to tighten border restrictions and deport undocumented immigrants.
Tibbett’s father responded to this rise in anti-immigrant sentiment saying, “I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome. But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”