On Wednesday, July 18, 2018, 20-year-old Molly Tibbets was dog-sitting for her boyfriend Dalton Jack & staying at his house when she headed out for her typical mid-evening jog in the small town of Brooklyn, Iowa when she disappeared. Brooklyn has a population of about 1500 & is located 52 miles to the west of Iowa City. Molly was born on May 8, 1998 in Oakland, California to parents Rob & Laura. Her parents divorced when she was in second grade & Molly moved to Iowa with her mom & two siblings when she was in fourth grade. Despite the cross country distance, Molly stayed very close with her father & the last time he saw her was at his wedding in June, one month before she disappeared.
Molly was a psychology major at the University of Iowa with a focus on child psychology. Her goal was to work to help kids through their toughest times. In the summer of 2018, she was working at a children’s day camp at Grinnell Regional Medical Center & was getting ready to begin her sophomore year of college. Molly met her boyfriend Dalton in high school in October of 2015; he was a football player who was a senior while Mollie was a junior. After a game, Dalton & his friend were sitting in a pickup truck when Mollie’s friend came over to talk to Dalton’s friend. Dalton immediately noticed how funny & attractive Mollie was & got her number right away. They began dating which involved going out to a lot of dinners & movies or even just staying home, enjoying each other’s company.
Mollie ran track & cross country & competed on the local debate team while in high school; she was well liked & known in the town, babysitting for many families & also involved in the local Catholic church. Her aunt described her as a beautiful, positive girl. Mollie graduated high school in 2017 & headed off to college about fifty miles away at the University of Iowa while Dalton stayed back in Brooklyn, living with his brother & working in construction. They made sure to see each other every weekend & even on some weekdays. Dalton felt that Mollie was the kindest & sweetest person he had ever met in his life.
Now that it was summer, Mollie & Dalton were back together in the same town. He was doing a construction job in Dubuque, Iowa, close to a two & a half hour drive from Brooklyn, so he asked Mollie if she could stay at his house & watch his brother’s dog; he last saw her on July 16th & left town the next day. On the 18th, the day Mollie went missing, she sent Dalton a Snapchat at some point, but he didn’t get around to opening it until 10pm; he could see in the photo that she was inside. He woke the next morning to his cell phone resting against his face, falling asleep before he had a chance to respond. He texted her to say good morning & when she didn’t respond, he texted her again at noon. Once again, he didn’t hear back from Mollie & just chalked it up to her being busy. Dalton also got a phone call from Mollie’s co-worker; she let him know that she hadn’t shown up to work that day & hadn’t called in sick which was extremely uncharacteristic. Dalton began to reach out to family & friends, asking if they had heard from Mollie as he & his brother made their drive back from Dubuque he was still not overly concerned at this point, feeling like she would show up with a good explanation.
Dalton called Mollie’s parents who contacted police to report Mollie missing that day, Thursday, July 19th. A neighbor remembered seeing her at about 7:30pm & recalled her wearing gym shorts, a black sports bra & running shoes. Dalton’s house was on the edge of town, just where the pavement turns to gravel. Mollie was described as a creature of habit & it was her routine to take her daily evening run through town, well before dark. The community came together, hundreds coming out to comb the rural woods of Poweshiek County & thousands shared Mollie’s story & pictures of her on social media. Missing posters filled the windows of every downtown storefront on Jackson Street, describing Mollie as 5’2”, 120# with long brown hair & brown eyes.
The area is surrounded by farm ground with corn & soybean crops & at the time that Mollie disappeared, the corn stalks were about eight or nine feet tall, making searching for her difficult. Planes & drones were used in her search, though there was difficulty looking down on the corn rows because the crops were very dense.
The investigation zeroed in on her digital footprint; Mollie was very well-connected with technology & social media & after she had gone missing, she fell off the grid; there was no cell phone or banking activity which was very concerning. Mollie also wore her Fitbit 24/7, tracking her workouts & her sleep; they hoped that her Fitbit data could help find her.
Mollie’s brother, Scott Tibbetts believed that his sister would be “fighting her best to get back home.” He felt that whatever situation she could be in, she wouldn’t just sit there and give up.
When Dalton was questioned, he told police he’d been 140 miles away in Dubuque, working as part of a crew building a bridge. He had worked twelve hours on July 18th & then drank beer & played yard games with the crew after until he went back to the hotel to sleep. It did come out during the trial that during their three-year relationship, he had cheated on Mollie once which she discovered while she looked through his phone. They worked through it & never broke up but he did admit that three days before she disappeared, Mollie told him that she was still sad & upset about his infidelity. Dalton admitted that he initially told police that he was watching a movie at his hotel & he didn’t disclose his infidelity. It also came out that phone records indicated he saw Mollie’s Snapchat at 1am vs. 10:30pm as he initially reported. Regardless, Dalton was cleared as a suspect.
Police canvassed the area near Mollie’s house, her typical jogging route & where she worked; they visited every home in Brooklyn, every farm building, barn & shed was searched. As the days went by with no sign of Mollie, Dalton continued to text Mollie, telling her how much he loves her, misses her & wants her to come home. He called her for days and days after she went missing, hoping for the unlikely chance that she would answer. Her phone was dead & went to voicemail each time.
A critical break in the case was when Logan Collins, who lived in the area at the time, contacted authorities with home surveillance video. At the time, Logan lived at 616 West Des Moines Street in Brooklyn & his family’s home had multiple security cameras with views of the surrounding properties & streets. He didn’t personally know Mollie but was able to recognize her as someone who jogged past his house from time to time. The video captured a black Chevy Malibu with distinctive chrome mirror covers, chrome door handles & chrome rims.
When the video was reviewed, images of a jogger which were believed to be Mollie was located on Boundary Street approaching the intersection of East Des Moines Street; the video was time stamped on July 18, 2018 at 7:45pm. The black Malibu was seen in the frame 28 seconds after Mollie was seen jogging. A different view from a camera facing northeast showed what authorities believed was the same car driving on Middle Street at its intersection with East Court; this image was obtained exactly two minutes after the jogger appeared on the video. The driver of the car nor the license plate could be identified from the video. The Malibu again passed Logan’s cameras at 8:07pm, this time at a higher speed, heading east on Des Moines Street. The time stamps on the videos were three minutes behind, so the Malibu was last seen on camera closer to 8:10pm.
Authorities noticed other cars driving in the video & those were ruled out as people who live in the area & described their movements to police. The black Malbu passed through numerous times after the runner passed through the video. 14 cars were seen on the cameras; 6 of which were the Malibu. It’s suspected that Mollie was abducted at about 8:20 pm on a rural road approximately 2 miles away.
Deputy Steve Kivi from the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Department reviewed the video lead on August 15, 2018 & the very next day, he saw the black Malibu getting onto Interstate 80 right outside of Brooklyn so he followed the car. When the car stopped & Officer Kivi got out, the male driver was already out of the car, this was 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera. Officer Kivi said he was calm & polite, but it was clear that he spoke little English. An older gentleman who spoke Spanish just happened to be nearby & translated for him; when asked if he knew about Mollie, he said he’d heard of her but denied having anything to do with her disappearance. He gave the officer his birth certificate as his ID & provided his place of employment, Yarabee Farms, as his address. Yarabee Farms is owned by the family of prominent Iowa Republican leader, Craig Lang. They allowed Rivera to live on the property rent-free. He took a picture of Rivera & the car though didn’t search the car, just peered inside & Rivera was let go
Four days later on August 20th, Officer Kivi went to Yarabee Farms to speak with Rivera who was then brought into the station for a formal interview which lasted twelve hours. He confirmed that the Malibu in the surveillance video was his; he purchased the car from his cousin. He had a second car as well, a Nissan Altima he drove on back gravel roads because its registration was out-of-date; since the Malibu’s registration was current, he drove that around town. He claimed that the evening Mollie went missing, he was driving around Brooklyn, trying to get to his uncle’s house to pick up a vacuum cleaner. He said he passed Mollie three times while she jogged & that she waved at him once & he found her “hot”.
He said he got out of his car & ran alongside her. He said she grabbed her phone & threatened to call the police, they started fighting & according to him, she slapped him. He said he got so mad that he “blacked out” at the threat, claiming this happened often when he got very upset & angry. The next thing he knew, he woke up inside his car that was parked at a rural intersection. He made a U-turn & drove to the entrance of a cornfield. At one point, he looked down & noticed one of Mollie’s earbuds in his lap & realized that he had Mollie’s body in his trunk. He said he went to the trunk & saw that she had blood on the side of her head. He took her body out of the trunk, placing her over his shoulder, walking about twenty meters into a secluded part of the cornfield, leaving her face up.
Rivera took Deputy Kivi to the cornfield at 5am on August 21st; when her badly decomposed body was located, it was covered in corn stalks, only her running shoes visible. When her body was uncovered, she was only wearing black socks & a pink sports bra & her legs were splayed open; her black shorts, underwear & pink headband were found 34 feet further into the cornfield. There were no signs of sexual assault. An autopsy found that she had been stabbed seven to twelve times in the chest, ribs, neck & skull; she died from sharp force injuries. The murder weapon was never found. A judge ruled that the statements Rivera made during the interrogation couldn’t be used during the trial because the officer who was with him during the interview left out the part about statements that can be used against him while reading his Miranda rights.
Both of Rivera’s cars were searched & processed; the trunk of the Malibu contained various items; blood was found on a football, a two-piece fishing pole & the rubber seal above the license plate & on the carpeted walls of the trunk’s interior which matched Mollie’s DNA.
During the trial, Rivera changed his story & denied having anything to do with the stab wounds to Mollie’s body that caused her death. He claimed that two armed men wearing black, faces covered with stocking caps, showed up to his trailer after his work shift. The men directed him to get into his car & drive & this is when they passed Mollie as she jogged; when they saw her, they ordered him to stop. He said that a man with a knife got out of the car & walked down a rural road & was gone for ten minutes. The second man who waited in the backseat started to get nervous. When the man with the knife came back to the car, he & the second man loaded something into the trunk of the car & directed him to drive several miles to a rural area, turn off the car, wait a few minutes & leave. He didn’t know their identity but they claimed they knew his ex-girlfriend & his young daughter & they would harm them if he ever told anyone what happened. He said the two men left on foot, down the road & he never saw them again. When he looked inside his trunk, he saw Mollie’s body which he carried to the cornfield. He said he covered her body with the corn stalks so she “wouldn’t be too exposed to the sun.” He said he left her phone, Fitbit & earbuds on the side of the road.
He said he lied to detectives when they questioned him on August 20th because he feared for his daughter’s safety. He said he brought police to Mollie’s body because he was tired & wanted the twelve hour interrogation to end. He told police that he grew up in southern Mexico & came to the US illegally when he turned 17, crossing a river into Texas in an inflatable raft with ten others. He immediately came to Iowa where his uncles had settled & he had gotten a job at a dairy farm. He worked twelve hour days & avoided the police for fear of deportation, never having interaction with police until Mollie’s murder investigation. His paychecks were received under the name John Budd.
Yarrabee Farms initially claimed that they’d verified Rivera’s immigration status through the federal E-Veryify program indicated they were never subscribed to the program. Yarrabee Farms claimed that it used the Social Security Administration system & clarified that Rivera had given them false information.
The defense for Rivera highlighted the possibility of a false confession, using video evidence of Rivera sleeping during the nearly twelve hour interrogation; they played 30 minutes of him sleeping at three times the speed. Focusing on the fact he had just finished a shift at the farm prior to the extensive interrogation
The trial began in late May of 2021 & lasted seven days; after seven hours of deliberation over the course of two days, on May 28th, Rivera was convicted of first degree murder & on Monday, August 30, 2021, three years after Mollie disappeared, Rivera was sentenced to life in prison without parole. When he was given the opportunity to speak, he replied, “No thank you.” Judge Joel Yates addressed Rivera, “You & you alone forever changed the lives of those who loved Mollie Tibbetts.” Molly’s mom, Laura Calderwood read her victim impact statement, addressing Rivera in court, “Mollie was a young woman who simply wanted to go for a quiet run on the evening of July 18th & you chose to violently & sadistically end that life.” Laura remembers being told by investigators that they had found Mollie’s body; she raced home to tell relatives before they could learn the horrible news from the media. The hardest part was telling Mollie’s grandma who was in disbelief that someone “could harm such a beautiful, vibrant young woman so full of promise.” Dalton was never able to give Mollie the engagement ring he already purchased for her, her father was never given the chance to walk his only daughter down the aisle, “Because of your actions, Mr. Rivera, I will never get to see my daughter become a mother.”
Mollie’s murder prompted criticism in the US immigration system; in August of 2018, Donald Trump tweeted about Mollie’s death, “Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman is now permanently separated from her family. A person came in from Mexico illegally & killed her. We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed. We need our border laws changed.” Mollie’s aunt shared a post that asked people “not to compound the atrocity of what happened to Mollie by adding racism & hate to the equation.” She said, “Evil comes in every color. Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship & support throughout this entire ordeal by friends or all different nations & races.” Rob Tibbetts, Mollie’s dad slammed the suggestion the person who was accused of taking Mollie’s life is no more a reflection of the Hispanic community as white supremacists are of all white people & didn’t appreciate his daughter being used as a “pawn” in immigration debate. He urges Americans to build bridges, not walls.
Mollie’s murder sparked a nationwide discussion about the risks women face when running outdoors. Women began honoring Mollie with the #MilesforMollie movement; showing that they will persevere despite the horrific loss. Before Mollie’s murder, Runner’s World magazine conducted their first survey of the types of harassment women in the US experience when out running. The 2017 survey showed that 43% of women experienced harassment while running with the number rising to 58% for women under age 30. 94% named men as the primary perpetrators. Only 4% of men report the same.
When Mollie’s case was covered in the media, many asked the question, “Why was she running alone?” Which implies that she was doing something wrong & shouldn’t have been. What needs to be focused on is that he shouldn’t have been harassing her in the first place. When the Runner’s World article was published, responses ranged from, “all runners get heckled” to “buy a treadmill.”
There have been many conversations about how women can protect themselves when out running; being aware of people in your vicinity, avoiding wearing headphones if you’re in a secluded area, and taking self defense classes. Mollie’s tragedy echoed similar cases; in August of 2016, three female joggers were murdered over the course of just nine days. Each was on a route they had traveled before & they were out during the day.
Holly Kearl, founder of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, which is a group that focuses on ending gender-based harassment in public spaces, feels that the conversations need to start in schools with boys & young men, to really work on redefining masculinity. She feels it’s much easier to tell women not to go running by themselves than to tell men not to harass them.
- The Des Moines Register: ‘She’s a fighter’: Community continues its search for missing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbitts
- Des Moines Register: New clues sought as search continues for UI student in Poweshiek County
- Des Moines Register: From 2018: Mollie Tibbitts’ boyfriend talks about the last message he received from her
- Law & Crime: Prosecutors Play Videos Believed to Show Mollie Tibbetts Jogging, Car Allegedly Used in Abduction & Killing
- WHO 13 Des Moines: Bahena Rivera confession and DNA evidence focus of Friday testimony in Mollie Tibbetts murder trial
- abc News: Mollie Tibbitts case: Body found believed to be missing Iowa jogger; murder charge filed
- Fox News: Mollie Tibbitts murder: Key home surveillance video of jogger, vehicle shown at trial for Mexican national
- Daily Mail: Illegal Mexican immigrant on trial for murder of Iowa jogger Mollie Tibbetts is seen ‘following behind her moments before she was stabbed’ in video shown to video
- NBC News: Millie Tibbett’s murder suspect takes the stand & blames mystery men for slaying
- Crime Online: Mollie Tibbitts Trial: Alleged killer’s car seen on video following jogger
- NPR: Man Convicted of Murdering Iowa Student Mollie Tibbetts In 2018 Gets Life In Prison
- Wikipedia; Murder of Mollie Tibbetts
- KWWL.com: Day 4: Law enforcement testimony details Bahena Rivera’s alleged confession
- We Are Iowa: Former police officer testifies Cristhian Bahena Rivera led law enforcement to Mollie Tibbetts’ body
- The Daily Iowan: Rivera trial: Blood found in Bahena Rivera’s car matches DNA of Mollie Tibbetts
- Abc News: Investigators examine missing Iowa jogger’s Fitbit data as search for 20-year-old moves to 9th day
- Vox: Trump: after Mollie Tibbetts’s murder, “we need the wall”
- New York Post: Mollie Tibbetts’ aunt speaks out: Evil comes in every color
- CBS News: Mollie Tibbetts’ father: Stop using her as a “pawn” in immigration debate
- BBC News: From catcalls to murder: What female joggers face on every run
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