"Every manifestation of evil is the result of basic sin - sin that has remained unchanged since the moment it first entered the human race."
- Billy Graham
It was the 19th of July 2018. A Thursday. Twenty year old Mollie Tibbetts didn’t show up for work at the daycare centre for her Summer job in Brooklyn. That wasn't like her and when her boyfriend, Dalton Jack, discovered that she wasn't at work, he called her multiple times but there was no answer. His calls went straight to voicemail. None of her family and friends had seen her that day. Dalton reported her missing to the police.
According to Dalton, Mollie was home alone the night before and that was the last time he heard from her. She was staying at his house. He lived with his brother, Blake Jack, in Brooklyn, Iowa, United States. Mollie was a student at the University of Iowa. She was studying psychology there.
When police spoke to Dalton, he told them that he was away for the week for work with his brother and Mollie stayed at their house so that she could look after the dogs. Police discovered that Mollie was last seen the evening of the 18th of July. Dalton told them he was in his hotel room that night and watched a movie alone. He said that his last communication with Mollie was via a Snapchat message he received at 10.30pm.
Dalton Jack and Mollie Tibbetts
Police began searching for Mollie and discovered that on the 18th of July, she went out for a run on a rural road just outside of Brooklyn. A woman, Kristina Steward, spoke to police. She knew Mollie and said that she saw her running at 7.45pm on the 18th of July. Kristina was driving at the time and drove past her and as she knew Mollie, she was certain it was her. That led police to check for surveillance cameras in the area. Where did Mollie run to and where did she go afterwards?
For weeks, hundreds of volunteers, friends, family and law enforcement searched for Mollie. No trace of her was found. Police got a break in the case when they obtained CCTV footage of Mollie running. The footage showed cars driving past her but one vehicle in particular stood out as it circled back and drove past her again.
Police identified the man. His name was Cristhian Bahena Rivera. He was an undocumented Mexican migrant and was working under an alias at a nearby dairy farm,Yarrabee Farms, and had worked there for four years. A homeowner's surveillance video showed him driving past Mollie in his Chevy Malibu. Cristhian was questioned in relation to Mollie's disappearance.
Initially, Cristhian claimed that he didn't see Mollie that day but after hours of questioning, he finally admitted that he saw her. He told police that he saw Mollie running when he was driving and circled back as he thought she was hot. Further questioning revealed that all hope of finding Mollie alive was over. Cristhian went on to say that he got out of his vehicle and approached Mollie. He ran alongside her and Mollie threatened to call the police if he didn't leave her alone. That made him angry and he blacked out. When he regained consciousness he was inside his vehicle and Mollie was inside his vehicle too. She was dead and covered in blood.He drove to a corn field in Brooklyn and buried her body.
Cristhian led police to the spot where Mollie was buried. When police got there, they saw her bright running shoes. Her body was covered with leaves and stalks from the corn field.
An Autopsy revealed that Mollie had been stabbed several times.
Cristhian was charged with first degree murder. Despite the fact he led police to the location where Mollie's body was buried, Cristhian pleaded not guilty. As a result, the Prosecution would need the Jury to determine that even though Cristhian told police that he blacked out after Mollie threatened to call police and found her covered in blood in his vehicle, that the only explanation for that gap in his confession was that he stabbed her to death.
It was the Prosecution’s case that Cristhian and only Cristhian was responsible for Mollie’s death and that there was nobody else involved in the crime. The Jury heard that the Prosecution’s case would rely on three main points to prove their case:
1. A surveillance video that showed Cristhian’s truck drive past Mollie when she was running;
2. Certain admissions that Cristhian made to police and the fact he led them to the location where Mollie's body was buried;
3. Mollie’s DNA was found inside his truck
Poweshiek County Attorney, Bart Klaver, told the Court:
"When you put this evidence together, there can be no other conclusion than that the defendant killed Mollie Tibbetts.”
The Court heard that Mollie went out the evening of the 18th of July for a run and that she never returned home. Instead, her badly decomposed body was found a month after she was reported missing.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera
Her boyfriend, Dalton Jack, testified. He told the Court that he was heartbroken by her death. He described Mollie as a happy, bubbly and goofy young woman. He told the Court that Mollie went out running nearly every day.
Dalton testified that they had dated for three years and on the day she went missing, he was out of town for work. He testified that he had been part of a crew building a bridge in Dubuque which is around 140 miles from Brooklyn. The Court heard that the day Mollie was last seen alive, he worked a twelve hour shift, and then went out and drank beer and played yard games with the rest of the crew. He testified that he didn’t return to Brooklyn that night and spent the night in a hotel.
The Prosecution told the Court that when Cristhian was arrested, he admitted to police that he drove past Mollie and when he saw her, he thought she was hot so he drove back past her again, got out of his truck and ran alongside her but Mollie threatened to call the police which made him angry. He fought with her and then blacked out. The next thing he recalled was driving and her body, which was covered in blood, was inside his truck.
The Court heard that he drove to the corn field, put her body over his shoulder and carried her to the spot where he buried her. He placed stalks from the corn field over her body.
The Court heard that Cristhian led police to where her body was buried and the Prosecution told the Jury that they believed that there was a sexual motive involved in Mollie’s death. Mollie was wearing only socks and a sports bra and her legs were spread when her body was found in the corn field.
The Jury were told about Mollie's injuries. The Autopsy determined she had been stabbed seven to twelve times in the chest, ribs, neck and skull. It was determined that she died due to sharp force injuries.
The Court heard about the other evidence the Prosecution had against Cristhian in terms of DNA. Mollie’s DNA was found in Cristhian’s truck. Mollie’s DNA was found on blood spots on the rubber trunk seal and trunk liner of Cristhian’s Malibu.
The Prosecution urged the Jury to consider all of the evidence in its entirety and if they did that, there would be no doubt in their mind that Cristhian was guilty.
The Defense disagreed. It was the Defense’s case that Cristhian did not stab Mollie. They described him as a hardworking immigrant from Mexico who crossed the border illegally when he was a teenager in search of a better life. His Attorney, Jennifer Frese, told the Jury that police were too quick to close Mollie's case and that:
"Her family deserves justice but so does Cristhian Bahena Rivera."
The Defense alleged that Cristhian was pressured into making a false confession. She described her client as a yes man and said that he always did anything he was asked to do. She told the Jury that when police questioned him, it took place over the course of hours and hours and after he had just worked a twelve hour shift. She told the Jury that his confession was false and coerced:
"The confrontation continued until it was put in my client's head, `perhaps you blacked out'.The state in this case, they got what they wanted and they closed the case. They got what they needed. There was an intense amount of pressure to close this case, to arrest someone, for this vicious crime."
The Defense argued that Cristhian never admitted that he stabbed Mollie and that was due to someone else being involved. They attempted to cast suspicion on Dalton. They told the Jury that Dalton was far from the perfect boyfriend and in fact had a short temper. Dalton admitted, on the stand, that he had a short fuse and got into fights in the past.
The Defense also told the Jury that Dalton was not a loyal boyfriend. Dalton testified that he had "screwed up" and cheated on Mollie. When asked if Mollie had been aware of his infidelity, he confirmed that she found out about it. She found out when she looked through messages on his phone. But Dalton claimed they had moved past it and worked through it. Yet, further questioning by the Defense, revealed that just three days before Mollie went missing, she was still upset about it and the day before she was last seen alive, she discussed it again.
The Defense showed Dalton his phone records. They revealed that he only called Mollie once in the days after she went missing, despite her body not being found until a month later.
The Defense told the Jury that Dalton received what they described as an odd question via text message from a woman who he had previously had a relationship with. The message was sent after Mollie was reported missing and when hundreds of people were searching for her. It read:
"Dalton, is Mollie alive?"
Dalton admitted that he made mistakes and wasn't honest. He admitted he initially told police that he was watching a movie in his hotel room on the night Mollie disappeared. He confirmed that he told police his last communication with Mollie was a Snapchat he received at 10.30pm but he actually received it after 1am. But he denied having anything to do with Mollie's death.
Cristhian testified. He told the Court that when he told the police what happened, he wasn't truthful as he was afraid that his former partner and child would be harmed. He told the Court that he was not responsible for Mollie's death and two other men were.
He testified that on the 18th of July he was taking a shower when two men, who he did not know, broke into the trailer where he lived. They were masked. One of the men had a knife and the other man had a gun. According to Cristhian's testimony, they forced him to drive to the rural road just outside Brooklyn to the spot where Mollie was. Cristhian testified that one of the men killed Mollie and put her body in his vehicle. They then instructed him on where to dispose of her body. According to Cristhian, they then threatened him. He was told to remain quiet or his former girlfriend and daughter would be killed. That was why, he claimed, that he told police that he approached Mollie and blacked out instead of telling them the truth.
The Defense called forensic consultant Michael Spence to testify in relation to the DNA found in Cristhian's truck. He agreed that it was Mollies' DNA that was found on blood stains in the truck but he testified that other DNA was found that included at least one unknown male and female.
The mother of Cristhian's daughter testified. Her name was Iris Gamboa and she testified that she lived with him for four years. The relationship ended in 2017 but she described him as a good father and every month, he paid $500 in child support for their daughter and also sent money back home to his parents in Mexico so that they could build a new house. When asked if he was ever violent towards her, she told the Court that he wasn't and never showed any excessive anger.
The Jury deliberated for seven hours and found Cristhian guilty of first degree murder.
Before his sentencing hearing took place, the Defense asked for time to follow up on two claims that were made after the guilty verdict was announced.
The Judge delayed the sentencing hearing to allow them to do so.
When the Defense obtained the details in relation to the new information, they brought a Motion before the Court seeking a new Trial for Cristhian. The Court heard that the new information related to claims made that suggested that there was evidence that others were responsible for Mollie’s death and had only been made known to the Defense after the guilty verdict was reached. Two people told police that a man confessed to them that he killed Mollie. They claimed that a twenty one year old man called Gavin Jones told them that he was responsible. One of the men, inmate Arne Maki, said that Gavin told him of his involvement when they were both held at the Keokuk County Jail.
According to Arne, Gavin said that he stabbed Mollie with another man, cut her up and wrapped her in plastic. He told him that she had been held at a sex trafficking trap house before her death that was owned by a man involved in the sex trafficking trade. That man was later identified via various media reports as being James Manuel Lowe. The plan was for Mollie to be sex trafficked but due to how much publicity her disappearance received, they knew that could no longer happen.
The Defense argued that due to this new information, a new Trial was required. The Court heard that James was a suspect in the disappearance of eleven year old Xavior Harrelson. But he was not charged in relation to that case. He was not charged in relation to Mollie's case either.
When police spoke to Gavin, he denied any involvement. He was in a rehabilitation facility in the summer of 2018 and then in an assisted living facility under state supervision.
The Defense also told the Court that a woman came forward and told police she was kidnapped after meeting an alleged sex trafficker at a Brooklyn gas station weeks before Mollie’s disappearance.She claimed a man pointed a gun at his own head and said:
“That Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbetts because I raped her and killed her.”
The Defense argued that due to the new information relating to the man and the sex trafficking claim and the woman at the gas station, the guilty verdict should be set aside as it was unsafe and a new Trial should be ordered.
The Judge disagreed. When the new evidence was presented before him a month after he delayed the sentencing hearing, he concluded that it was unreliable and there was no reason before him that would cause him to overturn the verdict. In fact, he pointed out that the statement that Gavin allegedly made did not match the evidence. Mollie had not been cut up or wrapped in plastic.
The Judge also said many of the new allegations conflicted with the Defense's case and evidence that they themselves had presented at Trial.
Their Motion was denied and the Judge, Judge Joel Yates, told them that he would proceed with sentencing Cristhian. Addressing Cristhian in Court, he said:
"You and you alone forever changed the lives of those who loved Mollie Tibbetts."
Iowa does not have the death penalty and as Cristhian was found guilty of first degree murder, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The punishment also included an order that Cristhian must pay the Tibbetts family $150,000 in restitution.
Mollie’s mother, Laura Calderwood, addressed Cristhian in a victim impact statement that was read to the Court:
"I come here to give a voice to our daughter, granddaughter, sister, girlfriend, niece, cousin and friend, Mollie Cecilia Tibbetts. Mollie was a young woman who simply wanted to go for a quiet run on the evening of the 18th of July and you chose to violently and sadistically end that life. Because of your act, Mollie's father, Rob, will never get to walk his only daughter down the aisle. Because of your act, Mr. Rivera, I will never get to see my daughter become a mother."
The statement described how difficult it was for Laura to tell her own mother, Judy Calderwood, about Mollie's murder, especially due to her mother's strong faith. She believed Mollie would be found alive. The statement read:
"I very quietly and softly said, 'Mom, I have some bad news. They found Mollie's body this morning. Judy Calderwood's unwavering faith had been brutally shattered by your senseless act of violence."
The Prosecutor in the case, Scott Brown, believed the Jury got the verdict right and that the sentence was the correct one:
"Based upon the facts and circumstances of this case, it is very well deserved."
Mollie's death received a lot of attention in the media and in politics. When Cristhian was arrested, the President the time, President Donald Trump, blamed US immigration laws for her death and Iowa Governor, Kim Reynolds, called Cristhian a “predator” who slipped through a “broken immigration system.”
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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