A former Iowa police officer who interviewed Cristhian Bahena Rivera and was present when he confessed to killing Mollie Tibbetts was grilled on the stand this week by defense attorneys, who argued the Mexican national only copped to the crime after hours of interrogation and a visit from federal immigration authorities.
Pamela Romero, a three-year veteran of the Iowa City Police Department, spent two days on the stand during Bahena Rivera’s murder trial in Scotty County Courthouse, describing for jurors how she interrogated the 26-year-old for 11 hours in August 2018 in connection with Tibbetts’ murder.
During the August 20, 2018 interview, Romero said the local farmhand confessed to her in Spanish that he killed Tibbetts—a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who vanished on July 18, 2019, while on a run near her home—and then dumped her body in a cornfield.
“I went to ask him, 'Mr. Rivera, please, just let me know, give me more details: How she got into the car, what happened to her, what did you do to her,’” Romero testified Thursday. “His answer was, ‘I brought you here, didn’t I? So that means that I did it? I don’t remember how I did it.’”
But defense attorneys went on to grill Romero, who now works at a turkey processing factory in Iowa, on her interrogation techniques during the interview, which is the crux of the prosecution’s case, arguing that Bahena Rivera was sleep deprived and anxious after being arrested for his illegal immigration status.
Defense attorney Jennifer Frese played a portion of video footage from Bahena Rivera’s interrogation, in which he can be seen rubbing his face and leaning over the table to try to sleep when officers were not in the room. Several times, Bahena Rivera asked whether an immigration officer would arrest him.
Frese says that her client was eventually arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at 11 p.m., about six hours into his interview. Several hours after that, he confessed to “blacking out” and murdering Tibbetts.
“Do you understand the position that sometimes people will say things that they didn’t really do?" Frese said Friday. Romero responded that she didn’t believe the confession was forced.
Ahead of the trial, defense attorneys tried to get Bahena Rivera’s confession tossed out of court, arguing it may have been false. District Court Judge Joel Yates denied that request but agreed to remove a portion of the interview footage in which Bahena Rivera was improperly informed of his rights.
“I told him he was free to go whenever he wanted, but he stayed and wanted to talk to me,” Romero insisted Thursday.
Bahena Rivera, who’s remained emotionless throughout Romero’s testimony, has been charged with first-degree murder for allegedly stabbing Tibbetts at least seven times on July 18, 2018. Tibbetts’ body was finally found in the early morning of August 21, 2018, after Bahena Rivera directed Romero and other authorities to the cornfield where he allegedly hid her.
Prosecutors have argued that on July 18, video surveillance footage from a neighbor showed Bahena Rivera’s black Chevy Malibu appearing to circle Tibbetts as she was running. The footage marked a major break in the case after a more than month-long search for the young woman.
Romero said that during the Aug. 20 interview, the farmhand initially denied knowing Tibbetts but admitted the car in the footage was his.
“Mr. Rivera told me he had no idea who she was and that he had never seen her,” Romero said. “I pulled out one of the posters that had Mollie’s face… and he looked at her, and said, ‘I have seen them around town,' and he remembered seeing Mollie’s boyfriend at one of the local gas stations.”
Eventually, Romero said that Bahena Rivera admitted to seeing Tibbetts running around town at least three times and conceded that she’d once waved to him as he drove by. Hours later, Bahena Rivera took several officers to a nearby cornfield and confessed he’d killed her, she said.
Bahena Rivera told Romero he had parked his car and started jogging toward Tibbetts, which made her uncomfortable, so she attempted to call the police, the officer told jurors Thursday.
“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.”
Romero said that the next thing Romero remembered was driving his car with Tibbetts’ body in his truck and her headphones on his lap. Bahena Rivera then told her that he brought Tibbetts to a cornfield and dumped her body.
“At one point I asked him, ‘Was it the head, was it the forehead?’ and with a hand motion he showed the neck,” Romero said. “I asked him how her body felt against his body when he was carrying her, and he said it felt like a person who had just fainted.”
Romero admitted that Bahena Rivera said he didn’t remember what weapon he used to kill her. The Iowa State Medical Examiner has ruled Tibbetts’ death a “homicide resulting from multiple sharp force injuries.” Prosecutors on Wednesday said that evidence suggests Bahena Rivera stabbed her seven to 12 times before dumping her body. The murder weapon has never been found.
Iowa Department of Public Safety crime scene tech Amy Johnson told jurors on Friday that when investigators finally found Tibbetts’ body about 400 feet from the road, her black running shorts and underwear were found several feet away. Romero said Friday that she was not aware of any sexual assault allegations against Bahena Rivera.
“I would say we had a very pleasant conversation,” Romero said Friday about the interrogation.