Rivera trial: Judge to submit written decision on motion for new trial

During Tuesday’s hearing, the defense presented evidence to build a case concerning a potential county-wide trafficking ring.


Cristhian Bahena Rivera stands as the verdict in the trial for the death of Mollie Tibbetts is read on May 28, 2021. Bahena Rivera was found guilty of first-degree murder. (Pool Photo/Associated Press)

Sabine Martin, News Editor

Judge Joel Yates is set to rule on a motion for a new trial after hearing evidence presented by the defense related to an alleged county-wide trafficking ring involving the murder of Mollie Tibbetts and disappearance of Xavior Harrelson, among others.

Both state and defense counsels met on Tuesday at the Poweshiek County Clerk-Court in Montezuma to hear testimonies on behalf of the defense to build their case to “connect the dots” that someone else is responsible for Tibbetts’ death.

The defense requested a motion for a new trial on July 13, which delayed original sentencing on July 15. Now, Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s sentencing date is unknown.

University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, 20, went missing on July 18, 2018. The search ended in August 2018 when Bahena Rivera, 24, led authorities to her body and confessed to her murder. He is convicted of first-degree murder and is set to serve life in prison, as previously reported by The Daily Iowan, if he is not granted a new trial.

The crime took place in Poweshiek County, near Brooklyn, Iowa, where the Tibbetts family lives. Tibbetts’ case prompted a state-wide search that received national attention.

Defense attorney Jennifer Frese said connecting the dots between Tibbetts and this new evidence is important given that 10 children, including Tibbetts and Harrelson, have gone or recently are missing.

Among the witnesses testifying was inmate Arne Maki, who testified that Gavin Jones, 21, told him that he and Dalton Hansen allegedly killed Tibbetts for James Lowe, 50, who was supposedly running a trafficking ring out of New Sharon, Iowa.

Maki, 46, a resident in the Iowa Department of Corrections, was one of the first witnesses to testify Tuesday morning.

As previously reported by the DI, Maki said Jones, his former cellmate in the Keokuk County Jail in 2020, confessed that he allegedly killed Tibbetts.

“Why would someone tell me something so heinous like that,” Maki said.

Arne Maki 

Maki added Jones indicated to him that Tibbetts was in the basement of the “trap house,” that an alleged trafficker owns.

“He would talk to these other guys who were at the trap house,” Maki said. “He said he would always see women, girls, going in, out, and down to the basement.”

Maki said Jones told him he allegedly saw a girl in the basement gagged and tied to a chair when they were stealing cars for the trafficker.

Jones, according to Maki, said the “defendant” tipped off the alleged sex trafficker, so they had to remove the person in the basement, who Jones said was Tibbetts.

“If the police went to the next house over, the police would have caught her,” Maki said.

The defense made a point to ask Maki whether or not he would receive any benefits, monetary or otherwise, for testifying.

“No matter what you say today, you will be out of prison in December?” defense attorney Chad Frese asked Maki.

Maki confirmed, and said he is not getting any changes to his sentence, which will end on Dec. 4, for testifying on Tuesday.

Iowa Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown asked Maki why he felt compelled to testify towards the possible end of the trial.

Maki said he saw two clips on TV from Fox News of the trial but did not watch any of the testimony. He said he learned about Rivera’s clean criminal record and family.

Trent Vileta

Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Trent Vileta, who originally testified on May 24, said for a month, his team was trying to search for Tibbetts.

He said they had almost 100 tips a day during the search.

The defense mentioned that Hope Beck, one of Tibbetts’ best friends from Brooklyn, and others said they thought the case involved sex trafficking during the investigations initial interviews.

Vileta said as the investigation’s case agent, his team ruled out these statements from people like Beck because their answers were speculative.

“I think there is a perception in the world, and we all know this, that there is sex trafficking in the world,” Vileta said. “No one is saying that it is being done in Poweshiek County.”

Vileta said the investigators never developed any connection between Rivera, Jones, Hansen, and James.

“Cristhian Rivera said he did this all by himself, and I’ve never heard those other names before a couple of weeks ago,” Vileta said. “Cristhian Rivera murdered Mollie Tibbetts.”

In another theory including sex trafficking, the defense said Ron Pexa, a former Tama County police officer and reserve deputy, lives close to where Tibbetts’ body was found.

Jennifer Frese said Molly Tibbett’s FitBit that she was wearing during her abduction stopped connecting to location services near Pexa’s house.

Jamie Slife, a Benton County resident, called in several tips during the investigation regarding her father, Pexa. Slife testified for the trial on May 26 and shared how Pexa physically and sexually abused her and other family members as a child.

When Maki testified, he said a member of the Tama County police was allegedly involved in sex trafficking, according to Jones.

Vileta said when they searched Pexa’s house, he did not have a “torture room.”

“I don’t think we did anything past that with Ron Pexa,” Vileta said.

Samantha Rix

Samantha Rix of Montezuma said she was the person who reported Xavier Harrelson’s disappearance. Harrelson, the 11-year-old boy from Montezuma, has been missing for two months.

Rix said she knows Lowe because he used to be the boyfriend of Xavier’s mom, Sarah Harrelson.

Rix said Lowe is a known drug dealer of methamphetamine and other substances, she said.

The state objected to the questioning of Rix as the defense attorneys attempted to connect Lowe to trafficking.

“James Lowe is connected with Xavier Harrelson’s disappearance,” Jennifer Frese said in response to the prosecution’s objections. “James Lowe is also involved in sex trafficking. I can’t connect the dots unless I present a case.”

Yates said he would give more leeway to the arguments presented, but the defense needs to get to the point of relation between Tibbetts and Harrelson’s disappearances.

“We’re spending too much time on the Harrelson case than we are on this case,” Yates said.

Ben Johnson 

Ben Johnson with the Mahaska County Sheriff’s Office shared two instances brought from the defense of Lowe’s alleged involvement in sex trafficking.

Johnson said State Trooper Brad Cubit picked a female up in March 2020 outside of Oskaloosa who was “in distress.”

Johnson said the young woman talked about being sex trafficked. The young woman said she was drugged and sex trafficked out of a home, like the one Maki referred to as the “trap house,” in New Sharon on 405 East Market St.

He said a “trap house” is a residence where various crimes are committed with various people staying in the house. He said drugs are distributed from those residences, and people come and go frequently.

Johnson said Lowe is a frequent visitor to the New Sharon residence.

In another instance, Johnson said Lowe gave the young woman $10 worth of gas to travel to New Sharon. The young woman and her boyfriend traveled to New Sharon and were “shot up” with drugs by Lowe.

Johnson said the young woman continued to be “shot up” with drugs at the New Sharon residence from May to August. The young woman advised Johnson that Lowe was keeping her in the house.

“After that, she doesn’t really recall anything that occurred,” Johnson said.

A second individual gave a statement from an officer of the Oskaloosa police that Johnson received in March 2019. He said the individual said they felt they were being followed and insinuated that it was Lowe.

After hearing arguments for a new trial, Yates said he will take the matter under submission before closing the record on the defense’s side.