Two reports identify potential new suspect in murder of Mollie Tibbetts

In an appeal filed by the defense for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, convicted of first-degree murder in May, new information from within the jail and a third-party witness has identified new suspects in a possible connection to sex-trafficking.


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

The defense for Cristhian Bahena Rivera filed an appeal for a new trial after both a local county inmate and third-party witness came forward separately with corroborating information that could identify new suspects in the abduction and fatal stabbing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.

Bahena Rivera was convicted of first-degree murder in connection to Tibbetts’ death on May 28. According to court documents, shortly after the conviction, defense attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese were approached by prosecutor Scott Brown and Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver with information that they themselves had just discovered.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation had received contact from someone with the Iowa Department of Corrections that an inmate in a local county jail came forward with information relating to a conversation held with a cellmate regarding Tibbetts’ abduction.

It was reported that the inmate was coming forward with the information now after hearing about Bahena Rivera’s testimony on TV, and believed the information to be true.

The prosecution offered to track down more information, but Bahena Rivera had already rested his case and at the time, getting third and fourth-hand information was not consistent with evidence presented throughout the trial.

Following the verdict, the defense received two reports: one report concerning the inmate and a second report that involved an independent third-party witness – unknown to the defense at the time.

The inmate in question was interviewed for 20 minutes on May 26 at 1:15 p.m. This same date, the defense began calling its first witnesses to build its case. Bahena Rivera had not yet testified.

While in a jail in or near Poweshiek County, the inmate said his cellmate, referred to as “inmate 2” in court documents, told him that he and another individual were in a “trap house” owned by an around 50-year-old man who was involved in the sex trafficking trade. 

Both inmate and inmate 2 have been identified as male, according to court documents. It is unclear the ages of both men at this time. Inmate 2 told the inmate the individual traveling with him did not speak English very well. 

Inmate 2 and the individual had travelled to a second “trap house,” and inmate 2 claims he saw Tibbetts bound and gagged in the home. Inmate 2 claims he, the individual traveling with him, and the 50-year-old man had a plan to stab Tibbetts and dump her body near a Hispanic man to make it appear he committed the crime, according to the inmate in question’s interview.

During an interview by investigators on behalf of the defense, the inmate stated that he believed Tibbetts was to be sex trafficked, but because of the publicity surrounding her abduction, something went wrong. He stated that inmate 2 told him federal authorities at one point showed up next door to the “trap house” and were “getting too close to them.”

Inmate 2 said the individual traveling with him knew a Hispanic man to pin the abduction and murder on. The inmate said he initially believed the story to be exaggerated, but after hearing Bahena Rivera’s testimony on TV, the stories were so similar that he decided to come forward.

The inmate said he gave inmate 2 money to post bail as inmate 2 was afraid to go home because he was facing an indictment.

It is unclear when this conversation between inmate and inmate 2 took place.

On the same day the interview took place, a third-party witness came forward around 3:10 p.m. stating they had information on the Tibbetts case, and was interviewed. The witness said they had been in contact with law enforcement after riding in a vehicle with four individuals who were later arrested and taken to jail.

The witness said one of the individuals in the vehicle – who they were familiar with – put a gun to the witness’ head and said, “that Mexican shouldn’t be in jail for killing Mollie Tibbetts because I raped her and killed her.”

This individual who made the comment and held the gun to the witness’ head is the same individual referred to as “inmate 2”, according to court documents. This is supported by the fact that the four individuals arrested were transported to the same county jail where the inmate was being held.

The inmate’s name was not put in court documents, but the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility and the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office have been ordered to present Arne Maki at Bahena Rivera’s sentencing, which is set for Thursday at 9:30 a.m. in Montezuma, Iowa. 

Maki is being held in Keokuk County jail serving a sentence for domestic violence.