A preliminary report from the autopsy of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts has ruled the death a “homicide resulting from multiple sharp force injuries,” according to CNN. The Brooklyn, Iowa, college student disappeared during an evening jog five weeks ago; her body was recovered from a cornfield on Tuesday, after authorities were allegedly led to the remote location by Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who was formally charged with Tibbetts’ murder on Wednesday.
“Sharp force injuries” are stab, incised or chop wounds caused by pointed and/or sharp-edged objects, according to CNN. Authorities from the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) have not indicated whether they’ve identified or recovered a possible murder weapon.
According to the arrest affidavit, during an interview with investigators on Monday, Rivera confessed to elements of the crime, but not the murder itself. He allegedly told investigators — through a Spanish translator supplied by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations department — that he followed Tibbetts while she was out jogging, first in his vehicle and then on foot, and later hid her body under corn leaves. According to the report, Rivera described seeing Tibbetts’s body in the trunk of his car, with blood on the side of her head.
What occurred in between is unclear; according to the report, Rivera claimed he “blacked out” after Tibbetts pulled out her cellphone and threatened to call 911, and offered no details on how, when, where or why he allegedly killed her.
Almost as soon as he was arrested, the media began reporting that Rivera, who was born in Mexico and allegedly speaks no English, was in the United States illegally — an allegation made by state authorities that, according to Rolling Stone’s reporting, is based on ICE having probable cause to file for an immigration detainer. Right-wing politicians like Mike Huckabee, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich and President Donald Trump immediately began using Tibbetts’ murder as an anti-immigration talking point.
However, while the media’ coverage has largely reported Rivera was undocumented as a fact, that allegation has been in dispute. For the last four years, Rivera was employed at Yarrabee Farms, a dairy farm owned by the family of former Iowa GOP official Craig Lang, which initially claimed that Rivera had been vetted as legal to work through the government’s e-Verify system. On Wednesday, Rivera’s attorney, Allan Richards, cited their assurances in his motion for a gag order, saying media reports and Trump’s statement about his client’s alleged “illegal” status have impeded his right to a fair trial.
However, on Thursday, Rivera’s now former employer revealed that they’ve since learned he applied for the job under a different name and provided false identification, including a state-issued government ID and social security number. Manager Dale Lang also admitted that they did not actually vet him through e-Verify as initially stated; according to the Des Moines Register, they erroneously assumed e-Verify was the same as the Social Security Administration’s number verification service, which does not check immigration status or eligibility to work in the U.S.
Richards has since acknowledged that Rivera was paid under a different name, but he continued to dispute the allegation that his client is in the country illegally. Rivera came to the United States as a minor, has paid taxes for years and has no criminal record, Richards said, implying that his client would have been eligible for citizenship under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and deserves the presumption of innocence in all matters. US Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson Michael Bars told CNN that they have no record of Rivera making any DACA requests. Rolling Stone’s repeated attempts to reach Richards have thus far been unsuccessful.
Since his arrest, a few people have come forward with stories of Rivera behaving in ways that seem particularly unsettling in light of the murder charges. One young woman told Mail Online that her 17-year-old sister hung out with Rivera a few times and thought he was a “nice, well-spoken person” at first, an interesting description in light of Rivera’s need for a Spanish translator. But the teen became “creeped out” by his “flirty behavior,” and “she had to keep telling him she wasn’t interested.”
In an interview with Crime Online, a man identified only as Justin claimed that Rivera followed his girlfriend twice “in the same exact black Malibu” that authorities say he was driving the night of Tibbetts’ murder.
“I remember her calling me when she noticed how slow he was driving by in circles, turning around the block to keep up with her several times on her walk home,” he told the outlet.
On the other hand, those who know Rivera have also expressed their shock about the allegations. Lang, for example, said that Rivera continued coming into work as usual after the alleged murder, and “nobody saw a difference” in his demeanor.
According to Fox News, the aunt of Rivera’s former girlfriend (and the mother of his child) called him a “talented young man,” who she’d never seen be “aggressive or violent,” and said she hopes DNA tests end up exonerating him of the crime. She’d actually seen Rivera at family gatherings in the weeks after Tibbetts disappearance, she said, and the case was even a topic of discussion.
“[Rivera] would comment as well and we would all say that we were surprised and scared because this is a quiet town,” said the aunt, who declined to provide her name. “He never displayed signs for us to suspect that he had anything to do with this.”