MONTEZUMA, Iowa (AP) — A man from Mexico living in the U.S. illegally has confessed to kidnapping college student Mollie Tibbetts while she was running in her small Iowa hometown, killing her and dumping her body in a cornfield, authorities said Tuesday.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of the 20-year-old Tibbetts, whose July 18 disappearance set off a massive search involving state and federal authorities.
Rivera led investigators early Tuesday to a body believed to be that of Tibbetts in a cornfield about 12 miles southeast of Brooklyn, Iowa, where Tibbetts was last seen running, said Rick Rahn, a special agent in the Division of Criminal Investigation.
“I can’t speak about the motive. I can just tell you that it seemed that he followed her, seemed to be drawn to her on that particular day, for whatever reason he chose to abduct her,” Rahn told reporters at a press conference outside the Sheriff’s Office in Montezuma, where Rivera was being held on $1 million cash-only bail.
The case is certain to add fuel to the explosive and racially-tinged debate about immigration, as President Donald Trump’s border wall, which he touts as a symbol of security, remains an unfulfilled and unfunded campaign promise.
At a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday night, Trump appeared to reference the case and the arrest of the “illegal alien” from Mexico.
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman,” Trump told the crowd in Charleston.
“Should’ve never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad. The immigration laws are such a disgrace, we’re getting them changed, but we have to get more Republicans. We have to get ’em.”
Tuesday night, the White House tweeted: “The loss of Mollie Tibbetts is a devastating reminder that we must urgently fix our broken immigration laws.”
Vice President Mike Pence also took to Twitter: “Heartbroken by the news about Mollie Tibbetts. We commend the swift action by local, state, & federal investigators working in Iowa in apprehending an illegal immigrant, who’s now charged with first-degree murder.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it lodged a federal immigration detainer for Rivera after he was arrested on the murder charge. That move means the agency has probable cause to believe that he is subject to deportation.
Investigators said they believed that Rivera had lived in the area for at least four years, and Rahn described Rivera as someone who lived in a rural area and kept to himself.
Yarrabee Farms, a family-owned company that operates dairy farms in the rolling hills outside Brooklyn, said that Rivera had been an employee in good standing for four years and that it was shocked to learn that he was implicated in the crime.
The company is owned by the family of Craig Lang, a prominent Republican who has served as president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.
A search of court records revealed no prior criminal history for Rivera in Iowa, and it’s unclear whether he had ever been subject to prior deportation proceedings.
Rivera’s Facebook page described him as being from Guayabillo, a community of less than 500 people in the state of Guerrero. It’s about a three-hour drive from the resort city of Acapulco.
Investigators said they zeroed in on Rivera after obtaining footage from surveillance cameras in Brooklyn. The footage showed a Chevy Malibu connected to Rivera that was driving back and forth as Tibbetts was running in the area, Rahn said.
An affidavit attached to the criminal complaint against Rivera alleged that he admitted to investigators that he got out of his car and started running alongside Tibbetts.
Tibbetts grabbed her phone and said she was going to call the police. The affidavit says Rivera panicked and then said he blacked out. Rivera next remembers seeing her earphones on his lap and taking her bloody body out of the trunk of his car, it said.
“The defendant further described during the interview that he dragged Tibbetts on foot from his vehicle to a secluded location in a cornfield,” the affidavit said.
Investigators said they had earlier searched the area for Tibbetts but didn’t find her, noting that the body was covered by corn stalks when recovered early Tuesday.
Rahn said Rivera was cooperating with investigators and speaking to them with the help of a translator. Rahn said an autopsy would be performed on the body Wednesday by the State Medical Examiner’s Office.
Rivera’s initial court appearance is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday in Montezuma.
A conviction on first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole in Iowa, which doesn’t have the death penalty.
Tuesday night, deputies were guarding a trailer where the suspect had lived on a gravel road outside Brooklyn near a dairy farm.
Tibbetts’ disappearance set off a massive search involving dozens of officers from the FBI, as well as state and local agencies. They focused much of their efforts in and around Brooklyn, searching farm fields, ponds and homes. Investigators asked anyone who was around five locations, including a car wash, a truck stop and a farm south of town, to report if they saw anything suspicious on July 18.
Last week, Pence met privately with the Tibbetts family during a visit to Iowa and told them that “you’re on the hearts of every American.”
At Brooklyn City Hall, City Clerk Sheri Sharer said Tuesday was a sad day for the town.
“It never crossed our mind that she wouldn’t come home safe,” she said.
The University of Iowa mourned the loss of Tibbetts, a psychology major who would have started her junior year this week.
“We are deeply saddened that we’ve lost a member of the University of Iowa community,” said university official Melissa Shivers, who urged students to seek counseling and other support services as needed.
Rahn said he met with the parents and other relatives of Tibbetts to inform them of the arrest Tuesday. He told them that the investigation revealed that they had “raised a great daughter.”
“We got to know Mollie,” he said. “She was a phenomenal individual.”
Iowa politicians, Sarah Root’s mother call for tougher action on immigration
As news spread that the man suspected of killing Mollie Tibbetts was in the country illegally, calls began almost immediately for tougher action on immigration, and President Donald Trump used the case in a direct partisan appeal.
Iowa’s Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state’s two U.S. senators issued statements that shared in the grief of the Tibbetts family but also said more must be done on immigration.
Tibbetts, 20, disappeared July 18 while jogging in the rural Iowa community of Brooklyn. On Tuesday, authorities announced the arrest of a 24-year-old man who they say abducted and killed Tibbetts: Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who has been in the country illegally for at least four years. He lived and worked in the area where Tibbetts disappeared.
In a joint statement, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst said no family should have to endure such a tragedy, “especially one that could have been prevented.”
“Too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws. We cannot allow these tragedies to continue,” they wrote.
In her statement, Reynolds said the state’s residents demand action.
“As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry. 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 wrote.
Ernst and Grassley highlighted their co-sponsorship, with Nebraska’s U.S. Sens. Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer, of “Sarah’s Law.” The legislation is not targeted broadly at all immigrants who are in the country illegally. Instead, it would require U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to take custody of immigrants who have been charged with a crime resulting in death or serious bodily injury.
The law is named for Sarah Root, a 21-year-old Council Bluffs woman who died in a crash in Omaha after being hit by a man who authorities say was in the country illegally. Police say that Eswin Mejia, a 19-year-old immigrant from Honduras, had been drunk and drag-racing when he crashed his pickup truck into Root’s car in January 2016. Mejia disappeared after posting bail.
Root’s mother, Michelle Root, said Tuesday that she is frustrated that more hasn’t been done to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.
“That’s another innocent life taken that could have been prevented,” she said of Tibbetts’ slaying. “I don’t understand how many more lives need to be lost. My heart is just broken for this family.”
Root’s death became a touchstone nationally for frustration over immigration, and Trump mentioned it in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016.
Tuesday, Trump told supporters during a speech that Tibbetts’ death was a call to elect Republicans to fix “bad” immigration laws.
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico,” Trump said. “And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman. It should have never happened, illegally in our country.”
Trump has made further crackdown on illegal immigration a core policy of his administration. He often has claimed widespread crime by people living in the country illegally, citing among other things the indictments of 11 suspected MS-13 gang members from El Salvador charged in connection with the slayings of two Virginia teens. Trump also has held events at the White House with members of “angel families,” whose relatives were killed by immigrants.
Although Trump claims legal U.S. residents are less likely to commit crime, several studies from social scientists and the libertarian think tank Cato Institute find that isn’t accurate and that states with a higher share of people living in the country illegally have lower violent crime rates.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.