The judge presiding over Mollie Tibbetts’ murder trial is set to make a written decision on the defense’s request for a new trial on Tuesday.
Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 27, introduced new evidence at a Poweshiek County Courthouse hearing that they claim will exonerate their client, who was found guilty of the murder of the student in Iowa in May.
The defense has sought to connect Tibbetts’ death with another woman’s report of kidnapping and sexual abuse in the summer of 2018, and the recent disappearance of 11-year-old boy Xavior Harrelson.
They claim Tibbetts may have been kidnapped as part of a Iowa sex trafficking ring headed by 50-year-old James Lowe – Harrelson’s mother’s former live-in boyfriend.
They also presented testimonials from two new witnesses, who allege that a 21-year-old local man had confessed to being Tibbetts’ true killer.
In his testimony on Tuesday, Trent Vileta, agent of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, rejected the defense’s claims and expressed confidence that the right man had been convicted.
Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 27, (right) introduced new evidence Tuesday at a Poweshiek County Courthouse hearing that they claim will exonerate their client, who was found guilty of the murder of Mollie Tibbetts.
The defense has sought to link Tibbetts’ death to two local men, including 50-year-old suspected meth dealer and “sex trafficker” James Lowe.
Prosecutors noted that Lowe, a suspected methamphetamine dealer, has been investigated in both kidnapping cases but has not been charged in either, and say he has no affiliation with Tibbetts at all.
Vileta, who served as the lead investigator on the case, said the claims against Lowe should be ignored, given evidence linking local farmhand Bahena Rivera to the kidnapping and stabbing of Tibbetts.
He noted that Bahena Rivera partially confessed to stalking Tibbetts while she was running, killing her and dumping her body in a cornfield, where he led investigators after a lengthy interrogation in August 2018.
He said Bahena Rivera’s statements were “fully confirmed from start to finish.”
“Cristhian Rivera killed Mollie Tibbetts,” Vileta testified.
After hearing hours of testimony Tuesday, Judge Joel Yates said he would consider the case and issue a written ruling as soon as possible.
Yates sometimes told Bahena Rivera’s lawyers that he struggled to see 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 ran down a country road, killed her, put her body in his trunk and forced him to throw it away.
Special Agent Trent Vileta of the Criminal Investigation Department on Tuesday expressed confidence that the correct man had been convicted, rejecting defense claims that her kidnapping could be linked to two other local men.
Bahena Rivera, who illegally entered the US from Mexico as a teenager, said he had not told investigators about the two men earlier because they had threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend and young daughter.
He would be sentenced to life in prison earlier this month.
But at the end of his trial, two new witnesses came forward independently and told police that a local 21-year-old man, Gavin Jones, had told them he had killed Tibbetts.
Defense said the information from witnesses could support a link between Tibbetts’ death and the disappearance of 11-year-old Xavior Harrelson in May.
Defense attorneys requested a new trial based on that and other newly discovered information, and Yates agreed to postpone sentencing while considering their request.
One such witness, inmate Arne Maki, testified on Tuesday that Jones told him about 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 in a sex trafficking “stairwell” where they were staying and framed Bahena Rivera for death, Maki testified.
An elderly man in charge of the house had ordered her to be 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 not getting any benefit for his testimony and said 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 was concluded.
Harrelson (11) disappeared from his trailer park home on May 27 in Montezuma, Poweshiek County (pictured above) — the same rural Iowa county where Tibbetts was kidnapped and murdered on a July 2018 flight
Jones has denied any involvement and prosecutors worked Tuesday to exonerate him.
Prosecutor Bart Klaver noted that Jones was in a rehabilitation center in the summer of 2018 and then in a state-supervised assisted living home.
They also noted that Tibbetts had not been cut up and wrapped in plastic, as Maki testified that Jones had told him.
Vileta said neither Jones nor the 50-year-old man came forward during the investigation.
During the cross-examination, he said investigators had not tested their DNA to determine whether either is related to two unidentified samples found along with Tibbetts’ blood in the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s vehicle.
Bahena Rivera’s DNA didn’t match and investigators never recovered a murder weapon.
At the trial, a state crime lab analyst testified that it would not be unusual for others’ DNA to be in the trunk, which contained a football, fishing rod and other items.