The defense for Cristhian Bahena Rivera rested Wednesday after he reversed his confession to killing Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.
Bahena Rivera, 26, faces first-degree murder charges for the murder of Tibbetts, 20, who was found dead nearly three years ago after going on a run. He has pleaded not guilty.
The trial is expected to resume for closing arguments Thursday.
Bahena Rivera originally confessed to law enforcement that he killed Tibbetts in a violent rage after approaching her on a run. Tibbetts’ blood was later found in Bahena Rivera’s car.
But when he described the night of July 18, 2019, through an interpreter on the stand, Bahena Rivera told a very different story. He claimed to have been taking a shower when two unknown men broke into his trailer and demanded his help. One had a knife and the other had a gun, he said.
He testified that they forced themselves into his black Chevy Malibu and told him to drive toward town. That was when he said they came across a young woman he now knows to be Tibbetts.
Bahena Rivera testified that he was told to stop, while the man with the knife exited the car. When the men left, he said he found Tibbetts’ body in the trunk of the car.
Prosecutors asked why the men sought his help, to which Bahena Rivera said he didn’t know. They asked why he confessed instead of telling police two other men made him do it, and he said he was scared for his daughter and ex-girlfriend and that he thought telling investigators what they wanted to hear would help him.
“You stabbed Mollie Tibbetts, isn’t that right?” Prosecutor Scott Brown said.
“No,” Bahena Rivera said.
Defendant said he fought with Tibbetts in confession
The prosecution said that it was Bahena Rivera who followed Tibbetts, stabbed her to death, put her in the trunk of his car and hid her body.
“When you put this evidence together, there can be no other conclusion than that the defendant killed Mollie Tibbetts,” Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver said at the start of the trial.
In opening statements, the prosecution’s case relied on Bahena Rivera’s unique vehicle accessories and his admissions to investigators, much of which was previously included in an arrest affidavit.
Home surveillance video from the night of July 18, 2018, spotted the silhouette of a woman running — as well as repeated sightings of a black Chevy Malibu with non-standard rims, chrome door handles and chrome mirrors, Klaver said. An investigator later spotted a similar vehicle and interviewed the driver, identified as Bahena Rivera, Klaver said.
In a follow-up interview with a Spanish-speaking Iowa City Police officer on August 20, Rivera admitted he was the only one who drove that vehicle, the prosecutor said. After initially denying knowing about Tibbetts, he then admitted he had seen her the night she disappeared, admitted he found her attractive and said he circled back for a second look, Klaver told the jury.
The next morning, Rivera and investigators went to a cornfield in rural Poweshiek County, where he allegedly admitted he had followed Tibbetts and jogged next to her. She had threatened to call the police, and Rivera admitted he got angry and fought with her, Klaver told the court.
“The next thing he remembers” was that he was driving and realized Tibbetts was in his trunk, Klaver said. Rivera allegedly admitted he took her bloody body out of the trunk, carried her into a field and placed corn stalks over her body, according to Klaver.
Her body was found in that cornfield wearing the same multicolored running shoes from her jog, the prosecutor said. The Medical Examiner determined Tibbetts had been stabbed seven to 12 times. Blood matching her DNA was also found in the trunk of the vehicle, Klaver said.
The disappearance of Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, sparked an extensive search in the region that drew national attention.
Tibbetts was studying psychology and wanted to get a doctorate and write books, her father said.