Rivera trial: Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s testimony suggests other individuals involved in Mollie Tibbetts’ death

On the eighth day of the trial, Bahena Rivera took the stand and testified that he was threatened with his family’s lives to assist two unknown men in the abduction and death of Tibbetts.


Kelsey Kremer

Cristhian Bahena Rivera testifies from the witness stand, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in the Scott County Courthouse, in Davenport, Iowa. Bahena Rivera is on trial after being charged with first degree murder in the death of Mollie Tibbetts in July 2018. (Pool Photo/Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

Rachel Schilke, Summer Editor

Cristhian Bahena Rivera testified Wednesday that his fear for his daughter and ex-girlfriend’s lives stopped him from telling investigators that he was the driver for the men who he claims abducted and killed University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.

Bahena Rivera testified through the two translators who have assisted him throughout the trial.

During Bahena Rivera’s testimony, he said on July 18, 2018, he was coming home from work and picking up a vacuum, and went into his home to shower and prepare his car for a date. 

After showering, he said he walked out of the bathroom and saw two masked men, wearing sweaters and long pants standing in his trailer. One was holding a knife and one was holding a gun, he said. 

He said he did not know how the men got into his home, but assumed they got in through the door as it was not locked. Bahena Rivera lives near Yarrabee Farms. 

He did not see any cars outside of his trailer other than his own, he added.

“[They said] that I shouldn’t do anything stupid, and that everything was going to be OK,” Bahena Rivera said.

He testified that the men were never violent or aggressive toward him, other than pointing the knife at him at times, and that he complied with all of their instructions.

Bahena Rivera said he was told to get in his car and drive. The man with the knife sat in the passenger seat and the man with the gun sat in the back. They told him to “drive straight,” he said. 

He said he heard one of them saying something about someone running. He added that he does not speak English but understands the basics.

While driving, Bahena Rivera said the men told him to follow the 385th Avenue into Brooklyn, Iowa, and saw someone jogging – Mollie Tibbetts. He said they passed Tibbetts three or four times.

“When we were coming into town, they tried to kneel down and crouch down as much as they could in the seats,” Bahena Rivera said.

He said the man in the front seat with the knife got out of the car and was gone for 10 to 12 minutes. He said the man in the back with the gun started whispering as time went on.

“I heard a lot of things, but I guess what I heard him saying is, ‘Come on, Jack,’” Bahena Rivera said.

He clarified that he was not insinuating that Dalton Jack, Mollie Tibbetts’ boyfriend, was one of the men, and did not know the identities of the men.

When the man with the knife arrived back at the car, the men told Bahena Rivera to continue driving approximately 300 meters and then stop again.

Bahena Rivera said the men got out of the car and told Bahena Rivera to turn around. He said he heard the men open his trunk, felt them put something in it, and heard them close it. They got back in the car and told him to continue driving, he said.

The men had Bahena Rivera drive to a cornfield. They took his phone and keys, Bahena Rivera said, and told him to never speak about what happened that day.

“Before they leave, one of them tells me not to say anything about what had happened,” Bahena Rivera. “That they knew Iris and they knew my daughter. That if I said something, they would take care of them.”

Reports from within the courtroom said that Bahena Rivera’s voice dropped and trembled slightly whenever he mentioned his ex-girlfriend and his daughter.

He said he knew there was something in the trunk, and when he opened it, he saw a body. He was scared to call the police because “it wouldn’t have been seen [as] good, it wouldn’t be right.”

Bahena Rivera said he took the body out of the trunk and covered it with corn leaves in the cornfield because he did not want her too exposed to the sun. 

He said his phone, his keys, and Tibbetts’ phone, FitBit, and earbuds were in the trunk when he left the scene. He walked home, he testified, using his phone for directions.

When defense attorney Jennifer Frese asked him why he did not tell anyone what happened, he said he knew if he did, in any way, he was going to be involved.

“I remember that they said if I would say something, they were going to do something to my family, my ex-girlfriend, my daughter,” he said.

He added that the men called his ex-girlfriend by her name – Iris Monarrez Gamboa, who testified on Tuesday.

During his 11-hour interview with former Iowa City and West Liberty police officer Pamela Romero, he said he was told that if he told them what they wanted to hear, they would help him.

“[They said] sometimes, people can be sick and they can forget things,” Bahena Rivera said.

When asked if he used the words “blacked out” first, Bahena Rivera said no, Romero used the term first. He testified that he never had any issues with blacking out.

He testified that he disagreed with Romero’s testimony that he used the word “hot.” Instead, he said he used the word guapa, the Spanish word for “pretty.”

“Did you intend to tell these men the truth about what really happened that night?” Frese asked.

Bahena Rivera said no, but eventually agreed to take investigators to Tibbetts because he was tired and said he was thinking of his family.

“In my mind, I had my daughter,” he said. “… They told me to put myself in [Mollie Tibbetts’] family’s position, and to think of her that if she was my daughter, what would I have done.”

During cross-examination, prosecutor Scott Brown emphasized that Bahena Rivera was “claiming” two men were present who killed Tibbetts and forced him to drive.

Brown clarified with Bahena Rivera that he was the owner of the black Chevy Malibu. Bahena Rivera agreed and said in the videos, it was his vehicle “100 percent.”

He said the men went and ran toward the road, and he did not see them again. He also never learned their identities, he testified, and does not have any connection to the two men in his house, Tibbetts, or Jack.

Frese questioned Bahena Rivera as to why he did not speak to officers at Poweshiek County about the threat to his family or the two men who abducted Tibbetts, given that he was in a “safe place.”

“Like you said, I may have been in a safe place, but I didn’t know where my daughter was,” Bahena Rivera said. “… I told them I wasn’t going to say anything until I knew my daughter was safe.”

Brandon Butliz

Brandon Butliz, a firearms specialist with the major crime unit in the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, was requested to assist with the investigation into Tibbetts’ disappearance on July 24, 2018.

On July 31, he was assigned to collect buccal swabs from 2384 460th Avenue, Guernsey, Iowa. At the time, he said Agent Trent Vileta told him drops of blood were found at the address.

The address was approximately a mile from where Tibbetts’ body was found, Butliz testified. He collected four swabs and turned them over to Vileta so they could be entered as evidence. 

Butliz added that the blood was deep in the dirt, so he had to take multiple swabs, and he was not able to tell if it was human or animal blood. Given the area where the blood was found, there was a cattle farm near there, so the blood could have been cattle, he said.

While he did not engage with the owner of the cattle farm, Butliz said another agent interviewed and searched the property.

He said he did not know if they were submitted after the discovery of Tibbetts’ body.

On August 2, 2018, Butliz said he was assigned to follow up on a neighborhood canvas and talk to residents who authorities had not yet spoken to. 

He said on 460th Avenue, there was a cemetery where he conducted an interview with Darien Davis. He said Davis was mowing the lawn when he was driving past it, and stopped to have a conversation.

Butliz testified that Davis said he was not in the area at the time, and no other information had been given.

Matt George

Matt George, an agent within the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation, conducted several interviews when Tibbetts’ disappearance was a missing person’s case only. 

He first responded to assist with the investigation on July 23, 2018. George interviewed those closest to Tibbetts, including Dalton Jack, Mollie Tibbetts’ boyfriend. He testified he was not aware Jack had been publicly cleared in a press conference.

He testified that he interviewed Jack for the first time on July 25, 2018, at the Brooklyn Fire Department.

He said that while Jack seemed very concerned about his girlfriend, he did not seem very emotional during the conversation.

George testified that on July 26, he asked Jack to interview again, and said it was not uncommon for individuals to be asked to interview more than once.

After discovering that he had not been forthcoming about his affair with Jordyn Lamb in his first interview, George asked him to interview again on July 27.

Defense attorney Chad Frese attempted to ask questions regarding the inconsistency of Jack’s statements with George’s, but was met with objections from the prosecution.

Outside the presence of the jury, the defense provided an “offer of proof” that Dalton Jack, who testified on Tuesday, had given inconsistent statements about his affair with Jordyn Lamb.

George said he could not recall the date, but Jack told him he had a one-day sexual relationship with Lamb. 

“He told me that some time ago, I can’t remember if it was a number of months or years, he had had a sexual relationship with [Lamb] I believe one time,” George testified. “Fast forward to more recent times, around the time of Mollie’s disappearance – maybe months leading up to that – they were engaged in, ‘sexting’ conversations to where [Lamb] would send [Jack] pictures and they would talk sexually over the phone, things of that nature.”

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, Jack testified that while he could not recall several conversations between himself and Tibbetts regarding Lamb, Tibbetts was aware of the affair.

However, Frese said this is inconsistent with George’s statements and offers “extrinsic evidence of prior inconsistent statements of Mr. Jack.”

“If [Jack] said he had no recollection of this, Agent George here can certainly testify that Mr. Jack’s recollection was clear on that day. Yesterday, he didn’t recall the April 9 conversation that he supposedly had with Mollie Tibbetts,” Frese said. “He testified clearly that Mollie first of all knew that they had sex as clear as a bell from yesterday’s testimony, and she had forgiven him. This is completely contradictory, and [this order of proof] is completely allowable under the rules, and it’s very important for Mr. Bahena’s defense.”

Judge Joel Yates ruled that the offer of proof given by Frese would stand, but the rest of the ruling was unclear because of an audio issue. 

It is unknown at this time if George’s comments outside the presence of the jury will be allowed as evidence.

Jordyn (Lamb) Johnson

Jordyn Johnson, whole maiden name is Lamb, was subpoenaed to testify in court. She had a relationship with Jack while he was dating Tibbetts.

She said to defense attorney Jennifer Frese that she was surprised she received a subpoena to testify.

When asked about recent contact with Jack, Johnson said Jack called her to ask about her testimony on Monday or Tuesday night.

She said she was approached by authorities on July 31, 2018, to ask about her relationship with Jack, and provided them with messages between herself and Jack from March 2018, a few months before Tibbetts went missing.

“He was just asking if I would give him another chance,” she said. “… I think there was one point in the messages where he said he would get back together with me.”

She added that Jack told her he would break up with Tibbetts to get back together with her, but was under the impression they had already split.

Johnson said she stopped responding to Jack and reached out to Tibbetts in April 2018 to show the messages Jack sent her.

She testified that she could not remember what was said but recalled that Tibbetts was kind to her during the conversation.

Jamie Slife

Jamie Slife called the tipline when Tibbetts was missing. Her father is Ron Peksa, who was interviewed by investigators.

She said her father lived in the Poweshiek County and reported him to the tip line a few days after she went missing and a few weeks into it, and then called the sheriff’s office to leave a message

She said Peksa sexually abused her and her sisters and threatened to kill them, including even throwing knives and pointing guns at her family members.

Brown objected to these statements on the basis of relevance. After Yates overruled, Slife became emotional. She said she was just in court to state the facts and that she had reports documenting the abuse and severe trauma inflicted upon her by her father.

“Based on the man that I know him to be, I felt the right thing to do was to call the tip line,” Slife said. “When, again, based on the media, they announced they were searching in his area, I felt the need to call again, because I did not know if I had been heard, if my tip had been taken seriously.”

She said she continued to make her concerns known, as her father lived in the area authorities were searching. She testified that she never got a call from law enforcement despite leaving a message at the sheriff’s office. 

Tibbetts’ body was found right next to Peksa’s property.

Luis Medina

Luis Medina, who lives in Tama, Iowa, is Bahena Rivera’s uncle by marriage. Bahena Rivera lived with Medina upon his arrival into the U.S.

Medina, a U.S. citizen, immigrated when he was five years old. He works as an electrician and is working on receiving a license.

He said Bahena Rivera was coming to the U.S. to better life for his family, which lives in Guerrero, Mexico. He said while living with him, Bahena Rivera was a quiet person but joked around with people that he knew. 

Medina never knew him to be violent or angry, he testified.

He said his wife called him, alerting him that Bahena Rivera was being questioned at the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s office. He said officers asked him questions about Bahena Rivera and told two different times it would be only 15 more minutes that he would have to wait.

When he went to check on his 14-year-old son, he said he saw Alejandra Cervantes Valle, his sister-in-law come in and start talking to a woman. He said he waited in the hallway for what “seemed like forever.” He said he did not make attempts to contact Bahena Rivera

When officers asked Medina if he knew about Tibbetts, he said he only recognized her from the news. 

Review of defense’s case

The defense rested its case on Wednesday, calling a total of 11 witnesses to take the stand, including Bahena Rivera and Dalton Jack, who was called by the prosecution to testify, as well.

Bahena Rivera’s statement that two other men were involved in the death of Tibbetts shocked the jury. Reports from within the courtroom said jurors instantly perked up and took many notes during Bahena Rivera’s testimony.

The defense is attempting to instill reasonable doubt in the jury by highlighting inconsistencies with Dalton Jack’s statements and disregard of investigating other potential suspects.

Review of prosecution’s case

The prosecution rested its case on Monday. In total, 14 witnesses were called by the prosecution to take the stand.

The prosecution currently has three pieces of evidence that they believe solidifies the guilt of Bahena Rivera: the presence of Tibbetts’ blood in the trunk of his vehicle, the appearance of his vehicle in video surveillance, and his admission.

The admission of his involvement in Tibbetts’ death was requested and granted to be suppressed as evidence, as his Miranda Rights were not read correctly.

Bahena Rivera had a second admission that occurred at the cornfield where Tibbetts was found. Romero testified on May 20 and 21 about the 11-hour interview and Bahena Rivera’s admission.

Jury instructions

Yates excused the jury for the rest of Wednesday and asked the prosecution and defense to review jury instructions and make record of them Wednesday afternoon.

Outside the presence of the jury, 36 instructions and one verdict form were agreed upon by both sides and will be provided to the jury.

There were 33 original proposed stock instructions and one verdict form provided to both sides.

The prosecution accepted all original instructions and verdict forms.

The defense objected to an instruction that provides an older definition of reasonable doubt. The new instruction as of June 2020 includes “hesitate to attack,” which Frese proposed to add into the instructions. 

Frese also proposed adding an expert witness instruction, a character and reputation instruction, and the dangerous weapon instruction.

Yates ruled to keep the older reasonable doubt instruction, and add in the three instructions proposed by Frese.

The trial will resume Thursday at 8:30 a.m. when instructions will be presented to the jury.