Prosecutor urges jury to convict man in Iowa runner’s death

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Cristhian Bahena Rivera speaks to court interpreter Steven Rhodes during Bahena Rivera’s trial, Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. Bahena Rivera is on trial for the 2018 stabbing death of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP, Pool)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A prosecutor urged jurors Thursday to find a farm laborer guilty of first-degree murder in the 2018 abduction and stabbing death of a University of Iowa student who disappeared while out for a run.

Prosecutor Scott Brown said in a closing argument that the testimony revealed “overwhelming evidence” that Cristhian Bahena Rivera is guilty of murder in the death of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts.

He called Bahena Rivera’s testimony that two men kidnapped him at gunpoint and forced him to take part in the crime “a figment of his imagination,” saying he concocted the story to try to explain away damning evidence.

Brown said the evidence shows that Bahena Rivera drove past Tibbetts while she was running on the evening of July 18, 2018, in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. He said Bahena Rivera found her attractive, tracked her down on a rural road and approached her as she ran.

Brown said that Tibbetts rebuked Bahena Rivera’s advances and threatened to call the police, which made him angry.

“The way he reacts with that anger is to stab this young woman to death and to dump her body in a cornfield,” said Brown, an assistant attorney general.

Brown said that Bahena Rivera also had “a sexual motive,” noting that Tibbetts was partially naked with her legs spread when her body was found in a remote cornfield.

Bahena Rivera knew for five weeks where he had hidden Tibbetts’ body under corn stalks but stayed quiet as investigators worked long hours to find out what had caused the “sweet young woman” to disappear, Brown said. He later led them to the body in the dark and confessed to the crime, he said.

Bahena Rivera’s defense lawyer, Chad Frese, told jurors that the confession was false and coerced and that prosecutors failed to prove that it was his client who stabbed Tibbetts to death. He noted that they never found a murder weapon or produced any witnesses showing exactly where she was killed, despite having “unlimited resources” to pursue the highly publicized case.

Frese said Bahena Rivera had no history of violence and worked to avoid police, given that he was living in the country illegally. He said it made no sense that his client would be “brazen enough to pick up a woman, abduct her and maybe kill her in a span of 10 to 20 minutes.”

“Folks this was planned, not by him but by someone else,” Frese said.

The closing arguments came after a two-week trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport. The 12-member jury began deliberating Thursday afternoon.

Earlier Thursday, prosecutors had called one rebuttal witness to establish an alibi for Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, whom the defense suggested was involved.

Jack worked on a bridge project in Dubuque, Iowa, until 7 p.m. on July 18, 2018, about an hour before Tibbetts was abducted and killed in their hometown of Brooklyn, his former supervisor Nick Wilson testified.

Wilson’s testimony suggested that Jack would not have been able to be in Brooklyn when Tibbetts disappeared. Brooklyn is about 140 miles (225 kilometers) away from Dubuque, or more than a two-hour drive.

Wilson said that after Jack got off of work, he grilled and drank beer with other crew members at a hotel that evening and was at work the next morning at 5:30 a.m.

Frese, the defense lawyer, said investigators did not look thoroughly into Jack. He noted Jack sent Tibbetts a text message within minutes of when she disappeared saying that his cellular “data straight up won’t work.”

“That’s a suspicious text if I have ever seen one, folks,” he said. “It sounds like someone trying to cover his tracks.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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