Man who killed Mollie Tibbetts is sentenced to life in prison

Published: Aug. 30, 2021 at 6:28 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) -The man who murdered University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts in 2018 got his mandatory life sentence Monday afternoon.

A jury found Cristhian Bahena Rivera guilty of First Degree Murder back in May. Before he was given his sentence, Judge Joel Yates said, “you and you alone forever changed the lives of those who loved Mollie Tibbetts and for that, you and you alone will receive the following sentence.”

Bahena Rivera declined his chance to speak during the sentencing, but a victim impact statement was read on behalf of Laura Calderwood, Tibbetts’ mother. Calderwood said Bahena Rivera took many big milestones away from Mollie and her loved ones when he killed her.

“Mollie was a young woman who simply wanted to go for a quiet run on the evening of July 18 and you chose to violently and sadistically end that life,” Calderwood wrote.

“Because of your act, Dalton Jack will never get to give Mollie the engagement ring he had purchased for her. Because of your act, Mollie’s father Rob will never get to walk his only daughter down the aisle. Because of your act, I will never get to see my daughter become a mother,” Calderwood’s statement continued.

Tibbetts went missing while out for a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, vanishing on a rural road outside her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, population 1,700, while out for a run on July 18, 2018. Family members and co-workers feared something was wrong when Tibbetts did not show up for her summer job at a daycare the next morning.

Hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officers searched for weeks but came up empty. Investigators began focusing on Bahena Rivera, who worked under an alias at a nearby dairy farm, after finding a homeowner’s surveillance video that appeared to show his Chevy Malibu repeatedly driving past Tibbetts while she ran.

After a lengthy interrogation, Bahena Rivera led authorities to a cornfield where he had buried Tibbetts’ body under leaves and stalks. Only her bright running shoes were visible. An autopsy found she had been stabbed several times.

Bahena Rivera told investigators that he approached Tibbetts because he found her attractive, and that he fought her after she threatened to call the police. He said he then blacked out and came to as he was driving with her body in his trunk.

Bahena Rivera’s lawyers argued that his confession was false and coerced, and their client gave surprise testimony at trial sharing a different account. Bahena Rivera testified that two masked men kidnapped him from his trailer at gunpoint, made him drive while they attacked Tibbetts, instructed him on where to dispose of her body, and told him to stay quiet or that his young daughter and ex-girlfriend would be killed.

The defense sought to cast suspicion on several others, including Tibbetts’ boyfriend and a local deputy who lives next to where Tibbetts’ body was found.

Prosecutors called Bahena Rivera’s testimony a work of fiction and a unanimous 12-member jury found him guilty.

But two people immediately came forward to tell police that a 21-year-old man with a history of violence had confessed to them that he had killed Tibbetts. Separately, a woman had told police she was kidnapped after meeting an alleged sex trafficker at a Brooklyn gas station weeks before Tibbetts’ disappearance.

Yates delayed a July sentencing so the defense had time to investigate. Earlier this month, he denied Bahena Rivera’s motion for a new trial, saying the new information was unreliable and he saw no reason to overturn the verdict.

After the sentencing, Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown said they’re glad this case has finally come to a close.

”It’s been a long haul for the family, and for those of us that have been prosecuting the case and investigating it so we’re just very pleased with the result and finally got it to the finish line,” Brown said.

Law enforcement escorted Bahena Rivera from the courthouse, he will begin his life behind bars at the Iowa Medical Classification Center in Coralville.

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