The murder of Mollie Tibbetts — the Brooklyn, Iowa, college student who went missing July 18th — is an undeniable tragedy, which is now being used by the Right Wing as anti-immigrant propaganda. Police say they recovered Tibbetts’s body from a cornfield on Tuesday, August 21st, after being led there by her alleged killer, Cristhian Rivera, 24, who police also claim is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Rivera was charged with first degree murder on Tuesday.
“He’s an illegal alien, been in this area for four to seven years,” Rick Rahn, special agent in charge at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, said during a press conference on Tuesday. Rahn said that federal officials determined Rivera was undocumented when he was taken into custody on Monday, but did not offer specifics.
Rivera’s immigration status became an immediate talking point in the media, which has largely reported that he is here illegally as a fact. Many Right-Wing politicians have done the same, including Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who said in a statement, “As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry. We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can (to) bring justice to Mollie’s killer.”
Vice-President Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee are among the other politicians who issued statements about Tibbetts being killed by an “illegal alien”; they all support President Donald Trump’s plans for immigration reform, which includes building a wall between along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump himself alluded to the case during a speech in West Virginia on Tuesday night.
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman,” Donald Trump said. “Should’ve never happened.”
However, Rivera’s immigration status is still very much up in the air, and his lawyer and employer are insisting that the government is wrong about him being in the country illegally. For the last several years, Rivera has been employed by Yarrabee Farms, which is owned by the family of former Iowa GOP official Craig Lang, according to the Des Moines Register. In a statement, a spokesperson for the farm said that they were “shocked” by the criminal charges against Rivera, an employee of four years who “was vetted through the government’s E-Verify system” and has been “in good standing.”
Today, Rivera’s attorney, Allen Richards, filed a motion for a gag order in the case, claiming his client is working in the country legally, citing Lang’s verification of his immigration status, and blasting the president for his incendiary remarks.
“Sad and sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members,” Richards wrote in the motion.
Mitch Mortved, Assistant Director with Iowa’s Division of Criminal Investigation, told Rolling Stone that the statement released by Yarrabee Farms “came as a surprise” to him. He referred questions on the matter to ICE, saying they investigated Rivera’s immigration status, not DCI.
Shawn Neudauer, ICE’s public affairs representative, tells Rolling Stone that officers from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations department assisted DCI with their investigation, including providing an officer who is fluent in Spanish to translate during Rivera’s interview with police, as he does not speak English. Information obtained during the interview and subsequent investigation by ICE led the agency to conclude there was a reasonable suspicion that Rivera was in the United States illegally, giving them probable cause to file for an immigration retainer. Neudauer wouldn’t offer further details, but says that “law enforcement is confident that they’ve identified Rivera as being in the country illegally.”
As for Lang’s claim that he verified Rivera was legal to work in the U.S. through the government’s E-verify system, Neudauer would only say that the system is run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), not ICE, and implied that the agencies use different methods for verifying a person’s identity and legal status.
ICE’s immigration case is secondary to the criminal investigation into Tibbetts’ murder, so Rivera is being held in state custody. For now, ICE’s immigration detainer is essentially a backup, in the event Rivera were to post bond or, further down the line, be found not guilty of Tibbetts’ murder, Neudauer says. That means ICE’s investigation into Rivera’s immigration status is also on hold and may never reach a resolution — in the event of a guilty plea or verdict, Rivera would remain in state custody for the length of his prison sentence, which in Iowa could mean life without the possibility of parole.
According to Iowa authorities, Rivera became a person of interest after being linked to a vehicle seen on surveillance footage taken in the area where Tibbetts was last seen. Rivera was brought in for the aforementioned interview, during which, with the aid of Spanish translators, he offered what authorities called a “confession.”
However, the arrest report released yesterday indicates it was hardly a complete one. According to the report, Rivera “admitted to making contact with a woman running,” “pursued her in his vehicle,” “parked … got out and was running behind her and along side her.” When Tibbetts grabbed her phone and threatened to call 911, Rivera, according to the report, “panicked and got mad and that he then ‘blocked’ his ‘memory’ which is what he does when he gets very upset.”
The report goes on to say that Rivera doesn’t remember what happened after that, “until he came to an intersection.” He then drove into the driveway of a cornfield, noticed an ear piece from headphones in his lap, and “that was how he realized he put her in the trunk.” Rivera then popped the trunk, where Tibbetts was lying with blood on the side of her head, according to the report; he carried her body 20 meters into the cornfield and left her face up, covered in corn leaves. Though he claims to have no memory of the murder, or how he ended up at the intersection, Rivera was allegedly able to determine his vehicle route from his phone, and led investigators to Tibbetts’ body based “on memory.”
The location of Tibbetts body is about 12 miles away from her residence in Brooklyn. An autopsy is still pending, and police haven’t indicated a possible cause or manner of death, but Mortved tells Rolling Stone that determining an exact time of death is unlikely. However, there is nothing to indicate Tibbetts was taken to any other locations, Mortved says, and investigators believe she was killed the night of her disappearance and her body was left in the cornfield shortly thereafter.
Investigators have spent the last five weeks combing Poweshiek County by foot and air, and have searched multiple cornfields with the help of cadaver dogs, but came up short. It’s unclear if this particular corn field, which is within county lines, was among those searched. The community has been on high alert ever since Tibbetts’ disappearance, and Mortved tells Rolling Stone that investigators have received plenty of tips from concerned residents, including turkey vulture sightings — a sign that something dead may be nearby.
Rivera is being held on a $1 million cash bond and is expected in court later today. Meanwhile, his immigration status continues to be a topic of contentious debate on social media, where most have taken the media’s lead in accepting ICE’s claim that he is here illegally as a fact. However, many have criticized how Trump and other politicians are exploiting Tibbett’s murder to further an anti-immigrant agenda. Some have pointed out that these same officials have not issued statements about another recent tragedy that’s captured national headlines — the murders of Shanann Watts, who was 15 weeks pregnant, and her two young daughters, Bella and Celeste, who prosecutors say were killed by Shanann’s husband, and the girls’ father, Christopher Watts, a legal United States citizen.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa also released a statement about the anti-immigration rhetoric surrounding Rivera’s arrest, saying, “It is unfortunate that during a tragedy like this some people choose to polarize our communities and our state by politicizing the situation and emphasizing the immigration status of the person accused.”