The judge presiding over the Mollie Tibbetts murder case is set to issue a written decision on the defense’s request for a new trial after listening to hours of testimony on Tuesday.
Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 27, introduced new evidence during a hearing at Poweshiek County Courthouse that they claim will exonerate their client, who was found guilty of murdering the Iowa college student in May.
The defense has sought to link Tibbetts’s death to another woman’s report of being kidnapped and sexually assaulted in the summer of 2018, and the recent disappearance of 11-year-old boy Xavior Harrelson.
They claim Tibbetts may have been abducted as part of an Iowa sex trafficking ring headed up by 50-year-old James Lowe – the former live-in boyfriend of Harrelson’s mom.
They also presented testimony from two new witnesses, who claim a 21-year-old local man had confessed to being Tibbetts’s true killer.
In his testimony Tuesday, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent Trent Vileta rejected the defense’s claims and expressed confidence that the right man was convicted.
Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 27, (right) introduced new evidence Tuesday during a hearing at Poweshiek County Courthouse that they claim will exonerate their client, who was found guilty of murdering Mollie Tibbetts
The defense has sought to link Tibbetts’s death to two local men, including 50-year-old suspected meth dealer and ‘sex trafficker’ James Lowe
Prosecutors noted Lowe, a suspected methamphetamine dealer, had been investigated in both abduction cases but hasn’t been charged in either, and say he has no tie to Tibbetts at all.
Vileta, who served as the lead investigator in the case, said the claims against Lowe should be disregarded given the evidence tying local farmhand Bahena Rivera to Tibbetts’s abduction and stabbing death.
He noted that Bahena Rivera partially confessed to stalking Tibbetts while she was out for a run, killing her and dumping her body in a cornfield, where he led investigators after a lengthy interrogation in August 2018.
He said that Bahena Rivera’s statements were ‘completely corroborated from start to finish.’
‘Cristhian Rivera murdered Mollie Tibbetts,’ Vileta testified.
After hearing hours of testimony Tuesday, Judge Joel Yates said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a written ruling as soon as possible.
Yates told Bahena Rivera’s lawyers at times that he was having trouble seeing any relevance to the case against their client.
Jurors found Bahena Rivera guilty of first-degree murder after a two-week trial in May.
They rejected his testimony in which he claimed that two masked men kidnapped him at gunpoint from his trailer, forced him to drive to where Tibbetts was running on a rural road, killed her, put her body in his trunk and made him dispose of it.
Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Trent Vileta expressed confidence Tuesday that the right man was convicted, rejecting defense claims that her abduction could be tied to two other local men
Bahena Rivera, who illegally entered the US from Mexico as a teenager, said he didn’t tell investigators about the two men earlier because they had threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend and young daughter.
He was to be sentenced to life in prison earlier this month.
But at the end of his trial, two new witnesses came forward independently of one another and told police that a local 21-year-old man, Gavin Jones, told them he had killed Tibbetts.
Defense said the information from the witnesses could support a link between Tibbetts’ death and the May disappearance of 11-year-old Xavior Harrelson
Defense lawyers requested a new trial based on that and other newly discovered information, and Yates agreed to postpone sentencing while he considered their request.
One of those witnesses, inmate Arne Maki, testified Tuesday that Jones told him of his involvement last year when they were both held at the Keokuk County Jail.
Jones said he and another man stabbed Tibbetts after she was held at a sex trafficking ‘trap house’ where they were staying and framed Bahena Rivera for the death, Maki testified.
An older man in charge of the house had ordered her killed, Maki said.
Maki said he came forward after seeing news clips about Bahena Rivera’s testimony in which he said two other men were responsible for the crime.
Maki, 46, said he was getting no benefit for his testimony, saying he wanted to ‘do the right thing.’
‘I just want to say one thing, my thoughts and prayers go out to the Tibbetts family,’ Maki said, after his testimony concluded.
Harrelson, 11, disappeared on May 27 from his home at a trailer park in Montezuma, Poweshiek County (pictured above) – the same rural Iowa county where Tibbetts was abducted and killed while out for a run back on July 2018
Jones has denied any involvement and prosecutors worked Tuesday to clear him.
Prosecutor Bart Klaver noted that Jones was in a rehabilitation facility in the summer of 2018 and then in an assisted living facility under state supervision.
They also noted that Tibbetts was not cut up and wrapped in plastic, as Maki testified that Jones had told him.
Vileta said that neither Jones nor the 50-year-old man came up during the investigation.
Under cross-examination, he said investigators hadn’t tested their DNA to determine whether either is linked to two unidentified samples found along with Tibbetts’ blood in the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s vehicle.
Bahena Rivera’s DNA was not a match, and investigators never recovered a murder weapon.
At trial, a state crime lab analyst testified that it wouldn’t be unusual for others’ DNA to be in the trunk, which contained a football, a fishing pole and other items.