Mollie Tibbetts’ accused killer took the stand on his own behalf Wednesday, sharing a dramatic story with jurors about how he was kidnapped by two armed, masked men and ordered to track down the University of Iowa student before one of them murdered her.
Testifying through a translator, Cristian Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old Mexican national who came to the U.S. illegally to work at an Iowa dairy farm, claimed that the two men ambushed him inside his trailer on July 18, 2018—and forced him to drive them around until they located Tibbetts.
Eventually, one of the men, armed with a knife, got out of the car and disappeared for at least 10 minutes, he testified. When the man returned, he asked Bahena Rivera to drive another “300 meters” before telling him to stop and hand over his keys.
“I just heard a movement in the car and then that the trunk closed,” Bahena Rivera told jurors in Scott County Court during his first-degree murder trial. He said that he drove the men until they reached a white house, where they again took his keys and phone and told him to wait a few minutes before he was free to go.
“Before they leave one of them tells me not to say anything about what had happened,” Bahena said, adding that the men said they “knew” about his daughter and ex-girlfriend. “I got out of the car because I did not have my keys. Obviously, I knew there was something in the trunk because previously I had felt when they had placed when they had put something in the trunk.”
Bahena Rivera said that when he opened the trunk and saw Tibbetts’ body, he panicked and decided to move her “very heavy” remains to a cornfield.
“I picked her up and then I put her in the cornfield,” he said, adding that he covered her with corn stalks “because I didn’t want to leave her...I didn’t want her to be too exposed to the sun.”
“I left her exactly how she was in the trunk,” he added.
The dairy farm worker added that he didn’t immediately go to the police about the horrific ordeal, because he was “scared” that he would be implicated in the crime.
At trial, prosecutors have argued that Bahena Rivera stabbed Tibbetts at least seven times on July 18, 2018, near the Brooklyn, Iowa, home where she was staying.
About a month later, the young woman’s body was found when Bahena Rivera directed authorities to the cornfield where he said he hid her—after an 11-hour interrogation and a visit from federal immigration authorities.
Bahena Rivera’s defense team has argued that investigators coerced a confession out of their client, leading him to believe he had “blacked out” when he stabbed Tibbetts. Defense attorney Jennifer Frese said the confession was the result of Bahena Rivera’s exhaustion after a 12-hour shift at the dairy farm, relentless questions from authorities who refused to let him see his family, and his arrest for being undocumented.
Pamela Romero, a former Iowa police officer, testified last Thursday that when she interviewed Bahena Rivera on Aug. 20, 2018, he “wanted to talk to me” and eventually acknowledged that video footage showed his black Chevy Malibu circling her as she was running.
Several hours later—after he was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—he confessed to “blacking out” and murdering Tibbetts, Romero said.
“He said that Mollie tried to slap him and was screaming at him,” Romero testified. “Mr. Rivera said this is when he became angry. He stated that when he gets angry, he usually blacks out.”
But Bahena Rivera insisted Wednesday that he actually lied to Romero and the other investigators, and never said a word about the armed men he claims surprised him at his apartment, warning him he “shouldn’t do anything stupid.”
He said that police eventually told him they had evidence his phone was with Tibbetts’ phone, and that her hair was found in his car. As the questions began to mount, Bahena Rivera told jurors he felt pressure to agree with authorities.
“If I helped them, if I told them what they wanted to hear, that they would help me,” he said after he was asked what he thought Romero meant when she told him in the interview to “help himself.”
Bahena Rivera said that after hours of questions, he relented and agreed to take investigators to the spot where he hid Tibbetts’ body.
“For one, I was already very tired and I wanted to stop. And most importantly they told me to put myself in the family's position and to think about if she was my daughter, what would I have done,” he said.
During cross-examination, prosecutors grilled Bahena Rivera about his sudden reversal, getting the farmhand to admit he told Romero he was angry at Tibbetts.
“You were given an opportunity in the presence of law enforcement to tell what you’ve told us here today..and you chose not to do that,” Brown said.