IOWA CITY, Iowa – A prosecutor rejected defense claims Thursday that the 2018 killing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts could be connected to sex trafficking and other abductions that happened in the rural area where she disappeared while out for a run.
A 21-year-old man's alleged confession that he helped kill Tibbetts after she was kidnapped and held at a house used for sex trafficking wasn't credible, Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown said during a hearing on what had been the day 27-year-old Cristhian Behena Rivera was due to be sentenced for her death.
“No evidence supports it. None. Zero,” Brown said.
He said that information about the 21-year-old's statements from two witnesses who independently came forward late in Bahena Rivera's trial was inconsistent with the defendant's own courtroom account of what happened. In a court filing before Thursday's hearing, he argued there should be “no doubt” about Bahena Rivera’s guilt based on the evidence.
Prosecutors say Bahena Rivera, a dairy farm worker who was convicted in May of first-degree murder in the slaying, drove past Tibbetts while she was out for her daily run in Brooklyn, her hometown about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Iowa City, and that he thought she was attractive, approached her and killed her after she threatened to call police. They say he partially confessed during a lengthy interrogation a month later and led investigators to the cornfield where her body was found.
During his trial, Bahena Rivera claimed publicly for the first time that two masked men kidnapped him from his trailer and forced him to drive before they came upon Tibbetts on a rural road and one of them stabbed her. He said the men loaded her body into his trunk and instructed him to dispose of it in the cornfield.
The hearing Thursday was to determine whether prosecutors should be ordered to turn over to Bahena Rivera’s lawyers information on sex trafficking investigations in the region where Tibbetts was killed. Brown resisted the defense’s request for that information, calling it a “fishing expedition.”
Judge Joel Yates said he would issue a written ruling this week and hold a daylong hearing on July 27 on the defense’s request for a new trial.
Bahena Rivera had been scheduled to be sentenced Thursday to life in prison until his lawyers said they needed more time to investigate the claims of the two new witnesses, who say the 21-year-old told them he helped kill Tibbetts.
Brown said Bahena-Rivera's testimony didn't match those alleged confessions because he made no mention of Tibbetts being held at a secondary location, her body being wrapped in plastic or other details.
Defense lawyers argued that the information from the witnesses could support a link between Tibbetts' death and the May disappearance of an 11-year-old boy from the area, Xavior Harrelson. They noted that a person under scrutiny in that case was previously accused of running a sex trafficking ring out of a home and kidnapping a woman he met in Tibbetts' hometown in May 2018.
Defense lawyer Chad Frese said prosecutors should have disclosed information related to those allegations, which were investigated in 2019 but did not result in charges. He said it was odd that such a small, rural area has had so many reported abductions.
“There’s something rotten within this area and they don’t want to provide us any information,” he said.
Brown said it was “unconscionable” that defense lawyers publicly revealed information about the ongoing investigation into the boy's disappearance, and that it was not connected to Tibbetts' death.