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Man charged in Mollie Tibbetts' death in Iowa was in the country illegally, authorities say

Man charged in Mollie Tibbetts' death in Iowa was in the country illegally, authorities say
Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, was reported missing from her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, on July 18. Her body was found Tuesday. (Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation)

A man from Mexico living in the U.S. illegally has confessed to kidnapping college student Mollie Tibbetts while she was jogging in her small Iowa hometown, killing her and dumping her body in a cornfield, authorities said Tuesday.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of Tibbetts, whose July 18 disappearance set off a massive search involving state and federal authorities.

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Rivera led investigators early Tuesday to a body believed to belong to Tibbetts in a cornfield about 12 miles southeast of Brooklyn, Iowa, where she was last seen jogging, state Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Rick Rahn said.

"I can't speak about the motive. I can just tell you that it seemed that he followed her, seemed to be drawn to her on that particular day. For whatever reason he chose to abduct her," Rahn told reporters at a news conference outside the sheriff's office in Montezuma, where Rivera was being jailed.

The news that the highly publicized and gruesome crime was allegedly committed by a person in the country illegally drew immediate outrage. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said: "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," she said in a statement.

The arrest is likely to spark calls for a further crackdown on illegal immigration, which President Trump has made a core policy of his administration.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera is shown in an undated photo.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera is shown in an undated photo. (Iowa Department of Public Safety via Associated Press)

He often has claimed widespread crime is being committed by people living in the country illegally, citing among other things the indictments of 11 suspected MS-13 gang members from El Salvador charged in connection with the slayings of two Virginia teenagers. Trump also has held events at the White House with families of victims killed by immigrants who were in the country illegally.

Although Trump says legal U.S. residents are less likely to commit crime, several studies from social scientists and the libertarian think tank Cato Institute find that isn't accurate and that states with a higher share of people living in the country illegally have lower violent crime rates.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that it lodged a federal immigration detainer for Rivera after he was arrested on the murder charge. That move means the agency has probable cause to believe he is subject to deportation.

Investigators said they believed Rivera had lived in the area from four to seven years. Rahn declined to comment on his employment history, but described Rivera as someone who lived in a rural area and kept to himself. A search of Iowa court records revealed no prior criminal history, and it's unclear whether he had ever been subject to prior deportation proceedings.

Investigators said they zeroed in on Rivera after obtaining video from surveillance cameras in Brooklyn. The video showed a Chevy Malibu connected to Rivera that was being driven back and forth as Tibbetts was jogging in the area, Rahn said.

An affidavit attached to the criminal complaint against Rivera alleged that he admitted to investigators that he got out of his car and started running alongside Tibbetts.

Tibbetts grabbed her phone and said she was going to call the police. The affidavit says Rivera panicked and said he then blacked out. Rivera next remembers seeing her earphones on his lap, and taking her bloody body out of the trunk of his car, the document says.

"The defendant further described during the interview that he dragged Tibbetts on foot from his vehicle to a secluded location in a cornfield," the affidavit said.

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Investigators said they had earlier searched the area for Tibbetts but didn't find her, noting that the body was covered by corn stalks when recovered early Tuesday.

Rahn said that Rivera was cooperating with investigators and speaking with the help of a translator. He said an autopsy would be performed on the body Wednesday by the state medical examiner's office, which would assist investigators in understanding whether Tibbetts had been assaulted or tried to fight him off.

A conviction on first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole in Iowa, which doesn't have the death penalty.

Tibbetts' disappearance set off a massive search involving dozens of officers from the FBI as well as state and local agencies. They focused much of their efforts in and around Brooklyn, searching farm fields, ponds and homes. Investigators asked anyone who was around five locations, including a carwash, a truck stop and a farm south of town, to report if they saw anything suspicious on July 18.

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence met privately with the Tibbetts family during a visit to Iowa and told them that "you're in the hearts of every American."

At Brooklyn City Hall, City Clerk Sheri Sharer said Tuesday was a sad day for the town.

"It never crossed our mind that she wouldn't come home safe," she said.

The University of Iowa mourned the loss of Tibbetts, a 20-year-old psychology major who would have started her junior year this week.

"We are deeply saddened that we've lost a member of the University of Iowa community," said university official Melissa Shivers, who urged students to seek counseling and other support services as needed.

5:15 p.m. This article was updated to report that authorities said Cristhian Bahena Rivera had confessed to kidnapping and killing Mollie Tibbetts.

2:55 p.m.: This article was updated with the number of years the man had been living in the U.S.

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with the name of the man charged in Tibbetts’ death.

This article was originally published at 7 a.m.

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