Rivera trial: Blood found in Bahena Rivera’s car matches DNA of Mollie Tibbetts

During the fifth day of the trial for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, photographs depicting Tibbetts’ body and clothing were shown in court, with the prosecution presenting DNA evidence found at the crime scene and Bahena Rivera’s residence.



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

Mollie Tibbetts’ blood was present in the trunk of the car belonging to Cristhian Bahena Rivera, an expert witness confirmed during testimony on Friday.

Graphic photographs and DNA evidence were presented to the jury as the prosecution used medical evidence to build its case against Bahena Rivera, accused of murdering University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.

Photographs of the location of Tibbetts’ body and the body itself were shown to the jury during the fifth day of the projected 10-day trial.

Bahena Rivera is accused of first-degree murder in connection with the disappearence and death of Tibbetts, 20, who went missing on July 18, 2018. Her body was found on August 21, 2018.

Pamela Romero, a former Iowa City police officer who testified on Thursday, took the stand on Friday, as did Amy Johnson and Tara Scott, criminalists with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

The defense for Bahena Rivera used the fifth day of the trial to emphasize the possibility of a false confession with video evidence of Bahena Rivera sleeping during an 11-hour interrogation.

Romero took the stand beginning at 8:30 a.m. until just after 11 a.m., after testifying for over two hours on Thursday. Her testimony has been the longest out of the 14 witnesses that have testified so far.

She began her Friday testimony clarifying the conversation that happened during Bahena Rivera’s interview on August 20, 2018.

Romero is a native Spanish speaker who moved to the U.S. when she was 10 years old. She said she was requested by the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office to assist with interviewing Bahena Rivera, as Spanish is his primary language.

Jennifer Frese, defense attorney for Bahena Rivera, made several comments during Thursday’s cross-examination of Romero about her saying she would “help” Bahena Rivera, to which Romero clarified that Spanish words may have a different meaning than what is directly translated.

On Thursday, Romero said she did not recall Bahena Rivera sleeping, but after being shown the video and translated transcript on Friday, Romero revised her statement and testified that she walked into the room and made the comment “you were asleep.”

The defense spent the majority of their cross-examination on Friday showing clips from Bahena Rivera’s interview. The prosecution requested the videos have no sound as the interview was in Spanish and would not be translated for the jury.

Frese played 30 minutes of Bahena Rivera sleeping at three times the speed, and then played a second video of Bahena Rivera eating a sandwich and soda that was approximately 23 minutes at normal speed. 

There was a disagreement between the prosecution and the defense over the videos playing in court. Prosecutor Scott Brown said he was only aware of an exhibit for the defense including two videos, but Frese stated that there were seven clips of the 11-hour interview she would like to play.

During the third video, Romero said Bahena Rivera told her an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement was coming for him the next day. Romero said an immigration detainer was placed upon Bahena Rivera so he was not allowed to leave the sheriff’s station.

However, Romero testified that she told Bahena Rivera three times that she was not concerned with his immigration status and was not involved with ICE proceedings.

She added that Iowa City Sergeant Jeff Fink, who was present in the room during the interview, clarified for Bahena Rivera that they were not from immigration and only wanted information on Tibbetts.

RELATED: Rivera trial: former Iowa City police officer among witnesses, translates interview, admission from defendant

Many breaks were taken during Friday’s testimonies, as both the defense and prosecution made records on evidence and questions for the witnesses.

Outside the presence of the jury, Brown made the suggestion to impeach the notion that Bahena Rivera was sleep-derived and cited that the defense had spent “considerable time cross-examining Pamela Romero over sleep deprivation.” 

Brown asked Judge Joel Yates to bring statements that were suppressed after the Miranda Rights violation back into usable evidence. 

Frese said the decision to impeach the notion is premature.

“There may be a point  where the court says, ‘Hey, you’ve opened the door, it’s allowed for impeachment,’” Frese said.

As of now, Frese said, she must be allowed to present this information in order to mount a defense.

Yates ruled that his previous decision to suppress Bahena Rivera’s statements at the cornfield is confirmed and would not be altered. He said the defense had not yet opened the door for the statements made during Romero’s cross-examination to be used as impeachment evidence.

He added that he would keep monitoring the issue and this decision could be subject to change later in the trial.

Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson, a criminalist from Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation – Crime Lab, analyzes evidence of controlled substances and also is a crime scene technician. 

She said she was notified by a DCI special agent requesting her presence in Poweshiek County on August 20, 2018, to process two vehicles: a black Chevy Malibu and a brown/tan Nissan Altima.

She said she went to the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office garage to examine both vehicles, for which she examined the Chevy Malibu for three hours. She also examined the Chevy Malibu after it was transferred to the DCI laboratory garage on August 22 for further processing, she said.

Items in the Malibu trunk included: a football, volleyball, two-piece fishing pole, bag of fish stringer, bobbers, fishing equipment such as weights, plastic bags, and paper.

The football, two-piece fishing pole, and the rubber seal above the license plate had positive presumptive areas of blood, Johnson said, and other areas were negative for blood. Swabs from these items were given to crime technician Tara Scott, whose expertise includes DNA testing.

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

Johnson testified that she was also present at the crime scene where Tibbetts’ body was found. Upon arrival, she said they took videos and photos of the roadway into the cornfield.

She said when approaching the body, Tibbetts’ multicolored running shoes were visible. Tibbetts was wearing a pink sports bra and black socks. 

Striped underwear, black shorts, and a pink fabric band were found in the field near the body, approximately 34 feet to the southwest of her location.

Johnson testified that she was searching the vehicle while Romero was interviewing Bahena Rivera, who at the time was a person of interest.

She found long, brown hairs in the trunk, and relayed this information to law enforcement during the interview. Johsnon said she did not collect any fingerprint evidence but sent items not analyzed for DNA to be checked for fingerprints. 

Johnson said she did not want to answer questions related to requests made to analyze evidence, as all she did was collect evidence.

After collecting evidence at the crime scene, she testified that she searched Bahena Rivera’s trailer for about three hours. She said they collected a folding knife, another knife, and a napkin that appeared to have blood on it. She added that they screened areas for blood and it came back negative, and none of Tibbetts’ items were located in the trailer.

Tara Scott

Tara Scott is a criminalist and crime scene analyst within the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. She came to the crime scene in Brooklyn, Iowa, on July 20, 2018, on a missing person’s report to look for signs of a struggle in the house of Blake and Dalton Jack. 

She said the crime scene team did not find the doors and hinges to be tampered with. Scott looked for hairs, body fluids, and turned-over furniture, and ultimately did not find any evidence of a struggle.

Scott said she found a water bottle and Tibbetts’ wallet during the search of the Jack house, and the water bottle was taken in an attempt to obtain Tibbetts’ DNA.

Scott testified that the team requested DNA from Tibbetts’ biological mother and biological father to build her DNA profile, which is the composite of 21 locations of DNA from nucleated cells, such as white blood cells.

Prosecutor Scott Brown read a stipulation to the court, stating that Dennis Klein, state medical examiner, had taken toenail and fingernail clippings from the body found, at the time labeled as “Doe,” and confirmed that the DNA from the clippings matched the DNA that belonged to Tibbetts.

Scott said she performed DNA analysis on the shorts, underwear, and a pink fabric band. She said there was no seminal fluid found on the shorts. A screening test showed that there were traces of blood on the pink fabric band, but was too weak for her to compare the blood to anyone.

A screening test on the folding knife concluded the knife did not have blood on it and no DNA testing was done. Tibbetts’ autopsy revealed she died from multiple stab wounds, but the murder weapon has not yet been found.

There was blood that matched Bahena Rivera’s on a napkin. 

She said she was able to get a DNA profile from the blood that was on the rubber flap on the trunk and on the side of the trunk’s carpeted walls. It was concluded that the DNA profile of the blood on Bahena Rivera’s car matched Tibbetts’ DNA profile.

During cross-examination, Chad Frese, second defense attorney for Bahena Rivera, asked if Scott had collected DNA and created DNA profiles for Dalton, Ally, and Blake Jack, to which Scott said no.

Scott said there were no DNA profiles found on Tibbetts’ body. The DCI had found hairs and a fingernail in the Nissan Altima, and none matched Tibbetts’ DNA.

Editor’s Note: During the court proceedings on Friday, a photographer from The Daily Iowan was removed from the courtroom due to photographs involving jurors. The DI recognizes the gravity of the mistake and regrets the error. The DI has been allowed to and will continue to report on trial proceedings. Judge Joel Yates said during proceedings that it was an honest mistake made by a young photographer, and no further action was taken against the photographer.