IOWA CITY, Iowa — The man on trial for the 2018 abduction and stabbing death of a University of Iowa student testified in his own defense Wednesday and claimed for the first time that two masked men were responsible for the crime but forced him to take part.
In a surprise development, the defense called Cristhian Bahena Rivera to the witness stand at his first-degree murder trial. He admitted that his black car was the one seen on surveillance video circling Mollie Tibbetts while she was jogging in Brooklyn, Iowa, on July 18, 2018. He also acknowledged that she ended up in his car’s trunk and that he hid her body in a cornfield.
But the farm worker presented a far different narrative about what happened than investigators and prosecutors have alleged, denying that he was responsible for stabbing her to death.
Bahena Rivera said two armed men who were wearing black and had their faces covered by stocking caps showed up at his trailer after he got done showering that evening. The men directed him to get in his car and drive, and they passed Tibbetts as she ran several times before directing him to stop, he said.
Bahena Rivera, 26, said a man with a knife got out of the car and walked down the rural road. The man was gone for about 10 minutes as the second man in the back seat of the car grew nervous, saying, “Come on, Jack,” he claimed.
The defendant said he didn’t know the men’s identities, but his lawyers have tried to raise suspicions about Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, who had an up-and-down relationship with her. Police said they cleared Jack as a suspect after establishing he was out of town for work that day.
Bahena Rivera said the men loaded Tibbetts’ body into his trunk, directed him to drive several miles to a rural area, to turn off the car, wait a few minutes and leave. They said they knew his ex-girlfriend and young daughter, and that they would harm them if he ever told anyone what happened, he said.
Bahena Rivera said the men took off on foot down the road and he never saw them again. He said he opened the trunk a few minutes later and found Tibbetts’ body, which he said was heavy as he carried it to the cornfield.
He said he covered her body with corn stalks because “I didn’t want her to be too exposed to the sun,” and that he then left and never planned to discuss what had happened again.
Bahena Rivera acknowledged that he wasn’t truthful when detectives questioned him about Tibbitts’ disappearance in August 2018, when he said he had approached Tibbetts as she ran, fought with her after she threatened to call police and then “blacked out.”
He said he agreed to lead investigators to Tibbetts’ body that day because he was tired and wanted the interrogation. And he said investigators had urged him to “put myself in the family’s position and to think of” how he would feel if his daughter was missing.
Bahena Rivera recounted growing up in southern Mexico and illegally coming to the U.S. after he turned 17, crossing a river into Texas on an inflatable raft with about 10 other people. He immediately went to live in Iowa, where his father’s brothers had settled, and got a job within days milking cows at a dairy farm, he said.
Bahena Rivera said he had never had contact with law enforcement until investigators looking into Tibbetts’ disappearance showed up at his workplace in August 2018.
Most legal experts didn’t expect Bahena Rivera to testify, and his defense gave no indication that he would. His lawyer Chad Frese said during jury selection that he had a dilemma and was torn on whether to call his client as a witness. He said that if Bahena Rivera didn’t testify, it would look like he had something to hide, but that if he did, he might be seen as trying to save himself.
The trial, which started last week, is being held at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport. Bahena Rivera faces life in prison if he’s convicted.