Translator for Mollie Tibbetts murder suspect police interview seeks full payment

A $12,485 payment was approved for translating the suspect’s interview with law enforcement, which the state reduced to $3,000.


Brian Powers/The Register

Cristhian Bahena Rivera walks into the Poweshiek County courthouse for day two of an evidence suppression hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 in Montezuma. Bahena Rivera confessed to killing Molly Tibbetts last year but his attorneys filed a motion to suppress the confession because he was not properly read his Miranda warning during initial interviews with police.

Kayli Reese

The translator hired by the state to interpret a police interview with the man accused of murdering University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts is seeking the full compensation she says the state owes her.

A hearing has been scheduled for 11 a.m. March 9 in Poweshiek County, according to court documents filed Feb. 27, to review the interpreter’s payment modification for her work interpreting the police interview of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the man accused of killing Tibbetts in August 2018.

Interpreters, Inc. — a Missouri-based corporation owned by Sara Gardner — requested the hearing to claim the company’s fee of $12,485 from the state public defender’s office for Gardner’s expert services.

The state notified Gardner on Feb. 6 that it reduced her payment to $3,000, documents read.

“That letter specified that the payment has been modified to reflect the correct compensation payable,” documents read. “The State Public Defender did not provide further explanation for the reduction.”

Gardner is a certified Spanish-language interpreter in Missouri and Kansas, and her “expertise is highly sought out in the area of presenting Spanish language conversations for criminal prosecutions,” court documents read.

In February 2019, the motion read, the defense for Bahena Rivera contacted Gardner to review Bahena Rivera’s 12-hour interview with law enforcement, which was done in Spanish, and compare it with the state’s transcript. The defense at the time was preparing for an evidence-suppression hearing, which would discuss whether Bahena Rivera’s rights were violated during his interview.

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Gardner found that the state’s transcript was incomplete and left out much of the interview, documents read, and she said she would transcribe and translate the entire interview before giving her expert opinion. The defense then asked Gardner to give an estimated cost for transcribing and translating the interview.

“Based upon the duration of the recording, accepted national standards for transcription/ translation and her previous experience, Mrs. Gardner prepared a firm, fixed estimate of $8,184 for the translation/transcription,” court documents read.

When the defense filed to hold an evidence-suppression hearing, documents read, 8th District Judge Joel Yates also approved the full amount Gardner outlined for her services in order for her transcription to be used in Bahena Rivera’s trial.

Gardner completed her transcription on May 28 and sent an invoice to the state public defender’s office for $8,184.

“The transcription provided by Mrs. Gardner provided interpretations of phrases that were unintelligible in the government’s transcript and provided proper context and English translation for Spanish phrases,” the motion reads. “By providing the transcript in this manner, both the defense and State possessed an exhibit to be used at trial without any concerns about foundation. This process saved the court and parties valuable time and expense in preparing for trial.”

RELATED: Man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts did not testify on second day of evidence-suppression hearing

The state public defender’s office then asked Gardner to provide additional forms showing the amount of hours she worked on the transcript, documents read. Gardner’s forms showed she worked 227 hours for $55 per hour.

The defense filed for an amended payment for Gardner based off the hours she worked on the transcript, documents read, which Yates approved on July 24. The amount then totaled $12,485 based off Gardner’s hours of work at $55 an hour.

Interpreters Inc. submitted the revised invoice to the state on July 25, documents said. Six days later, Gardner’s payment request was denied.

On Nov. 18, the court ordered that Gardner’s services were expert services and the previously ordered payment were expert fees. The state public defender asked Gardner to fill out more forms and a new payment request, which she completed Jan. 21, before notifying her of the payment reduction.