Third day of Rivera trial begins with opening statement, witness testimonies

The prosecution gave its opening statement on Wednesday and called the first group of witnesses to the stand, including Mollie Tibbetts’ boyfriend, her work supervisor, and Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s cousin.

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THE GAZETTE

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens to Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver give his opening statement at his trial at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Rivera is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Rachel Schilke, Summer Editor


The prosecution delivered its opening statements and called six witnesses to take the stand on Wednesday in the trial for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who is accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts in summer 2018.

Bahena Rivera is charged with first-degree murder. If convicted, he will serve life in prison. After the two-day jury selection concluded on Tuesday, Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver delivered the opening statement for the prosecution on Wednesday.

Klaver said three primary pieces of evidence point to Bahena Rivera as Tibbetts’ killer: The video of his vehicle in the area where Tibbetts was last seen, Tibbetts’ blood in the back of Bahena Rivera’s car, and his admission of taking her body to the cornfield where she would eventually be found.

“Ladies and gentlemen, when you examine this evidence together, there can be no other conclusion than that the defendant killed Mollie Tibbetts,” Klaver said to the jury. “And I’ll ask you to return a verdict, the only verdict that the evidence demands, that you find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree.”

The defense decided to defer its statement until the end of witness testimonies and the state’s presentation of evidence.

Blake and Dalton Jack

Mollie Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, and his brother Blake were among the witnesses that took the stand. Tibbetts, 20, was house-sitting for Blake Jack in Brooklyn, Iowa, on July 18, 2018 – the day she went missing – while he was out of town.

Blake Jack said Tibbetts was going to watch his two dogs while he and his wife were out of town. Tibbetts was staying at the Jack residence during the summer with Dalton Jack, who had to travel to Dubuque, Iowa, for work during the week that Tibbetts went missing.

Blake Jack said on his way home on July 19, two of Tibbetts’ friends flagged him down from their vehicle a block from his home and asked if he had seen her. After talking to neighbors, who said they had not seen Tibbetts, Blake Jack said he and his friends tried calling, texting, and messaging her on Facebook and Snapchat in an attempt to locate her.

Blake Jack said Tibbetts was an avid runner in high school and was running all the time, so her being out of the house was not unusual. However, given the tornado in Marshalltown the night of July 19, he thought she might have gotten caught in the storm.

When he learned she did not show up for work that day and had not heard from her, Blake Jack said he called the police.

When asked by the defense if he had knowledge of Dalton Jack’s affair with another woman while dating Tibbetts or his anger problems, Blake Jack said he was not aware of either.

Dalton Jack was called to testify after his brother, and was asked to recall his last communication with Tibbetts, stating that he had received a Snapchat from her on July 18, 2018 and did not open it until 10:30 p.m. He said the Snapchat’s background was the living room of the Jack’s house.

After sending a “good morning beautiful” text the following morning, he did not hear from Tibbetts again.

Dalton Jack said he received a call from Tibbetts’ supervisor on July 19, 2018, expressing concern that Tibbetts had not shown up or called in to the daycare where she worked.

He said he called and texted multiple people that could try to get ahold of Tibbetts, but none were successful. Dalton Jack and his brother were involved in the organized search led by authorities. The search lasted until August, 2018, when Bahena Rivera led authorities to her body.

RELATED: Jury selected in Rivera trial, testimonies to begin in the case of the death of Mollie Tibbetts

During cross-examination, Frese asked Dalton Jack about his affair with Jordyn Lamb that occurred in late 2017. Several attempts to probe him about his affair regarding communications with Lamb were met with objections by the prosecution.

Dalton Jack said he is in the U.S. Army now, and joined because he wanted to get away from Brooklyn, Iowa.

“I grew up there, she grew up there,” he said. “We had built our relationship around there, and then she was gone.”

Dalton Jack said during the trial that he absolutely did not want to be in the courtroom testifying voluntarily, but agreed after communicating with prosecutor Scott Brown while serving a tour in Iraq.

“I did not want to be in the same room as your defendant,” he said to defense attorney Chad Frese. “… I wholeheartedly believe he’s guilty.”

Reports from within the courthouse said he was emotional while discussing this, and it was the clearest and loudest Dalton Jack had spoken during testimony.

Officer Matthew Simpson

Matthew Simpson, an officer with the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office, said he received a call regarding a missing person on July 19, 2018 at 5:56 p.m. He responded to the call and arrived at Blake Jack’s house to find Blake, his now-wife Ally, and a few others.

He said nothing had looked out of the ordinary and it was a normal farmhouse, a “typical teenager’s house” with dishes in the sink. There were no signs of a struggle or forced entry, he said. Blake Jack advised Simpson that they did not typically lock their doors, he said.

The last reported communication was between Tibbetts and her mother, Laura Calderwood, was at 5:30 p.m. on July 18, 2018, Simpson said. Her mother reported that her running shoes and earbuds were missing.

He said he had dispatch ping her cellphone, but determined it was either off or in roaming mode. He eventually informed the sheriff and Steve Kivi, the investigator.

Jillena Scheck and Kristina Stewart

Jillena Scheck, Tibbetts’ supervisor at a nearby town’s hospital daycare, said Tibbetts was set to close on July 18, but had to report to the daycare at 8:30 a.m.

Tibbetts missing work and not calling was out of the ordinary for her, Scheck said. Both Scheck and Blake Jack said Tibbetts was very dedicated to her job at the daycare.

“She was always on time,” she said. “It was very unlike her [to not show up].”

A field trip was planned for the day Tibbetts was supposed to come to work, and Scheck said she made three attempts to message and call her. She said she realized Tibbetts had not responded to her when they arrived back from the trip, and texted her cousin to ask where she was.

RELATED: ‘It’s not going to be pleasant’: prosecutor warns potential jurors for trial over the death of Mollie Tibbetts

Kristina Stewart, the owner of Shared Expressions, a hair salon in Brooklyn, Iowa, said she was driving her car when she passed Tibbetts jogging on July 18.

Stewart said she had first met Tibbetts when she was 10 years old and her family when they moved to Brooklyn, Iowa, from California. Tibbetts was a client of hers, she said.

On July 18, she pulled out of her driveway onto Jackson Street and took a right onto East Des Moines Street and eventually ended up on 385th Avenue around 7:45 p.m.

She said she saw a younger woman, eventually recognizing her to be Tibbetts, running eastbound on 385th Avenue. She described her wearing a pink sports bra, black spandex shorts, and an armband for her cellphone.

Scheck said she had not seen any vehicles or any individuals near Tibbetts in the area, and prior to July 18, she had not seen her jogging on that road before. Scheck took the same route home and did not see Tibbetts.

“Usually when you see someone running out there, you expect to see them on the way back to town,” she said. “I know I can confirm that I did not see her running on my way back to town.”

Arely Nunez-Lorenzna

Arely Nunez-Lorenzna, who lives in Tama, Iowa, is the cousin of Bahena Rivera, said she was subpoenaed by the prosecution to testify during the original court date.

She owned a black Chevy Malibu, the car that Bahena Rivera allegedly used to transport Tibbetts’ body in. She said she had purchased it for him after he approached her about buying it. When asked by the defense why he could not purchase the car himself, she paused before testifying that he did not have papers that allowed him to purchase the car.

She testified that he is a Mexican national and his parents still live in Mexico. Bahena Rivera also has a daughter, she said.

She is registered as the vehicle’s owner and purchased insurance on it, she said, but has never used it.

Bahena Rivera would pay her monthly for the vehicle in cash on the first of every month. She said he never was late with payments and thanked her many times for her help.

The police asked Nunez-Lorenzna for permission to search and process the vehicle, which she allowed. When shown photos of the vehicle, she said did not recall there being chrome finishing – a detail the prosecution focused on during testimony – on the side mirrors when she purchased the vehicle.

She said she had a close relationship with Bahena Rivera when he lived in the Tama-Toledo area before he moved to Brooklyn, Iowa, spending afternoons talking. Bahena Rivera worked at a dairy farm in the Tama-Toledo area before moving.

She recalled interacting with him at family gatherings, and said there were never instances where he was violent or fighting, and that he appeared to be happy.

Jury proceedings and demographics

The trial was put on pause in the middle of the afternoon after the judge was alerted that a female juror felt unwell, and several Emergency Medical Services arrived at the courthouse. The juror was able to continue with proceedings after talking to medical professionals.

The jury demographics were updated on Wednesday. Three jurors identify as Hispanic/Latino/Spanish and 12 identify as white. The youngest juror is 19 and the oldest is 71.

The trial will continue this week and into next week. The jury will be in session next on Thursday at 8:30 a.m.

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