College student Mollie Tibbetts disappeared while jogging on July 18, 2018. More than three years later her killer Christhian Bahena Rivera finally received the maximum sentence, life in prison without possibility of parole.
Judge Joel D. Yates told Bahena Rivera, “You, and you alone, forever changed the lives of those who loved Mollie Tibbetts. And for that, you and you alone will receive the following sentence.”
Bahena Rivera, wearing a mask and headphones, was stoic as Yates sentenced him to a “lifetime sentence with no eligibility for parole.”
Bahena Rivera, 27, was sentenced to the maximum penalty under the law in a high-profile case that also became politicized, in part because of the defendant’s status as an undocumented immigrant.
The number of twists and turns in this case has been remarkable. In fact, if someone published a novel with this many twists it would be considered unrealistic. Start with the fact that Rivera was identified thanks to a home security video in which his car was seen following Tibbetts. Then, after a long interrogation, he brough police to the site where her body was found in a corn field. But police later admitted they hadn’t fully read Rivera his rights until they were at the corn field which rendered a portion of what amounted to his confession inadmissible during his the trial. Then there was the delay caused by the pandemic which meant his trial didn’t start until May of this year.
But the biggest surprises came during the trial. After his defense attorneys did their best to heap suspicion on Tibbetts boyfriend who was 100 miles away at the time of her disappearance, they suddenly announced he would take the stand to tell the real story of what happened.
Bahena Rivera said two armed men who were wearing black and had their faces covered by stocking caps showed up at his trailer after he finished showering that evening. The men directed him to get in his car and drive, and they passed Tibbetts as she ran several times before directing him to stop, he said.
Bahena Rivera, 26, said a man with a knife got out of the car and walked down the rural road. The man was gone for about 10 minutes as the second man in the back seat of the car grew nervous, saying, “Come on, Jack,” he claimed.
Dalton Jack just happened to be the name of Tibbett’s boyfriend. In any case, this sudden claim that two strangers in ski masks forced him to drive around with Tibbetts body in her trunk, a claim he’d never once mentioned in the three years since her disappearance, didn’t convince the jury which convicted him of first-degree murder after just 7-hours of deliberations.
But there was one more twist left in this saga. After his conviction, his attorneys claimed that two brand new witnesses had come forward to confirm parts of his story:
According to their court filing, a person incarcerated at an unnamed Iowa correctional facility approached their prison chaplain after seeing media coverage of the Bahena Rivera trial. On the stand, Bahena Rivera testified that two masked men had abducted him and forced him to assist with the kidnapping and killing of Tibbetts. Prosecutors afterward dismissed that account as fiction, but the witness, who is not named in the motion, told prison officials he could corroborate Bahena Rivera’s account.
Based on the new witnesses, the defense asked the judge for a new trial and managed to delay his original sentencing. But earlier this month the judge rejected those requests in a 13-page decision which pointed out the defense attorneys themselves had decided not to pursue the alleged witnesses’ claims at the time they were first reported to them.
The Court begins with the Motion for New Trial based upon the alleged confession of Gavin Jones heard and reported by Arne Maki…
The parties agree that Maki reported the confession he allegedly was told by Jones to the Iowa Department of Corrections of May 26, 2021, as Maki was then in custody by the IDOC. The information was then relayed to the Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown who shared it with the defense counsel. There is no official record of what exactly was communicated to defense
counsel or how defense counsel chose to react to the information. However, in their filings regarding the present Motion, both parties submit to the Court that the State offered to use its resources to investigate the matter further, but defense counsel took the view that the alleged confession was inconsistent with the testimony of the Defendant, which was heard by the jury just prior. The record clearly reflects, no request for a continuance was ever made…
Defendant, in his Motion, greatly downplays the discrepancies between his testimony at trial and the account that Maki reports he was told by Jones. For example, the specific details about how Mollie Tibbetts was murdered are vastly different. At the hearing, Maki recalls that Jones said he stabbed Mollie Tibbetts in the basement of the “trap house” and then wrapped her body in a tarp before pinning the murder on the Defendant. However, at trial, the Defendant testified that two individuals came to his residence, forced him to drive into Brooklyn and follow Mollie while she was running, and then wait in the car while one of them killed Mollie…
Had both versions of events been presented at trial, the jury would have had to make a credibility determination not between the State’s witnesses and those of the defense, which is a typical scenario, but between the Defendant and his own witness.
In short, the claims made by this convict, Gavin Jones, were at odds with what Rivera had just said on the stand. The defense chose not to pursue them before the verdict because they knew they couldn’t do so without further undermining Rivera’s credibility.
In any case, today Rivera finally got the sentence he deserves. And the judge’s statement “You, and you alone, forever changed the lives of those who loved Mollie Tibbetts” was clearly intended to throw the bogus claims about the two masked men back in his face.