The man charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of Mollie Tibbetts testified Wednesday that he didn’t kill Tibbetts. Instead, Cristhian Bahena Rivera pointed blame at two unknown masked men – one armed with a gun, another with a knife – who surprised him at his home on the night of Tibbetts’ disappearance.
The men, according to Bahena Rivera, forced him to get into his car July 18, 2018, and drive around near Brooklyn, Iowa, before spotting Tibbetts jogging toward town. Bahena Rivera said the men – one named “Jack” – made him circle around several times before stopping along a gravel road near where Tibbetts was last seen.
They drove out of Tibbetts’ sight, Bahena Rivera testified. The man armed with the knife got out of the car for 10 to 12 minutes, while the other sat in the back seat.
Bahena Rivera told the jury he heard the man in the backseat mutter to himself while they awaited the other man’s return to the car, including the phrase “come on, Jack.” The man with the knife then returned, Bahena Rivera said, put something heavy in the trunk and told Bahena Rivera to drive away.
The men, whom he’d never seen before that night, he testified, then threatened the safety of Bahena Rivera’s family if he dared speak up, including his girlfriend and then-3-year-old daughter, and then allegedly ran off toward a gravel road.
Frightened, Bahena Rivera testified through an interpreter, he went to the car’s trunk, found Tibbetts barely alive – but in such a state that he couldn’t save her – and then carried her into a cornfield where he left her body.
“She was very heavy … I picked her up and I put her in the cornfield,” he said, adding that he covered her with cornstalks. “I didn’t want her to be too exposed to the sun.”
She was still clothed in running shorts and a sports bra, but one shoe was off, he said.
“I left her (in the cornfield) exactly as she was in the trunk,” he testified.
Unsure where he was or how to get home, Bahena Rivera used his phone to get directions back to the trailer where he lived at the farm, he said.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s version of events
Wednesday’s testimony marked the first time that Bahena Rivera has publicly given a version of events from the night that Tibbetts was killed that differs from the hourslong statements he gave to police allegedly admitting to Tibbetts’ murder a month after she went missing.
Bahena Rivera, 26, gave his version of events leading up to Tibbetts’ death during about 45 minutes of direct examination by his attorney, Jennifer Frese.
His demeanor remained calm throughout his testimony, except when discussing his family. His voice dropped and trembled slightly as he described how the two men said “they knew Iris [Gamboa, his ex-girlfriend] and my daughter” and “that if I said something, they would take care of them.” His voice dropped again when he described why he told officers that he blacked out: “In my mind, I had my daughter,” he said.
While acknowledging he was in his black Chevrolet Malibu the night of Tibbetts’ disappearance – the same car spotted on surveillance footage that authorities said broke open the case – Bahena Rivera claimed Wednesday that he was forced into the vehicle by the masked, armed men who showed up in his living room at his home.
The men – a large, heavier man and a smaller but muscular partner – surprised him at his trailer after he’d gotten out of the shower, Bahena Rivera testified.
After leaving Tibbetts’ body in the field and finding his way home, Bahena Rivera said he never saw or heard from the men again.
Frese and her partner, Chad Frese, had previously tried shifting blame for Tibbetts’ disappearance and death to a series of other men, including her boyfriend of three years, Dalton Jack. Jack, according to the state, was in Dubuque at the time working on bridge construction.
‘If I called police, it was something that wouldn’t be good’
Bahena Rivera’s testimony, which took the court, including prosecutors, by surprise, came near the end of the nearly two-week trial, which is expected to last through Friday.
Most of the jurors were either slumped back in their seats or passively looking down through Wednesday’s first three witnesses, including Jordyn Lamb, the woman with whom Jack had an affair during his relationship with Tibbetts. But many perked up when Bahena Rivera was called to the stand. Some leaned forward and took notes.
Bahena Rivera’s version of Tibbetts’ death seemed to come out of nowhere. Frese had been questioning Bahena Rivera about his background from Mexico and how he had arrived in the United States at 17 with the help of a “coyote” trafficker by raft with about 10 people being smuggled in illegally.
About 30 minutes into Frese’s questioning, Bahena Rivera began telling his story.
“Mollie Tibbetts was in the trunk of your car, isn’t that right?” Frese asked. “Yes,” he said, followed by Frese saying: “And you did not tell [investigators] what really happened. Isn’t that right?”
“Correct,” Bahena Rivera said.
He said his planned trip to Brooklyn that night was to pick up a vacuum from his uncle’s house to clean his car before going on a date the next day. But coming out of the shower about 6 p.m. after returning from his uncle’s, the two masked men were standing in his trailer.
Bahena Rivera said he was compliant. “They said that I shouldn’t do anything stupid, and everything was gonna be OK,” he testified. “They’re just, they’re whispering, and we were there for a long while.”
Asked by his attorney why he didn’t notify anyone, Bahena Rivera said he didn’t call police “because I was scared. … If I called police, it was something that wouldn’t be good.”
Frese said: “You told not a soul about this for over a month. … If you weren’t approached, you would have taken this night with you to the grave, is that right?”
“Most probably,” he answered. “Because I knew if I did in any way, I would be involved.”
Prosecutor Scott Brown, who had stared at the defendant during Frese’s questioning, grilled Bahena Rivera during cross-examination, reviewing all the opportunities he had to share what he knew with law enforcement.
When brought to the sheriff’s office, Brown said, Bahena Rivera could have told investigators the truth and asked for their help in protecting his ex-girlfriend and their daughter.
As for the two men, Brown wanted to know how they got to Bahena Rivera’s home, and how they left the cornfield, since Bahena Rivera did not see a vehicle at either location.
“And these two men just disappeared?” Brown asked.
“That is correct,” Bahena Rivera said.
Closing arguments are expected Thursday.
Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest Criminal Justice Reporter for USA Today Network.