MONTEZUMA, Iowa — The attorney for a Mexican man accused of killing an Iowa college student challenged the government’s statement Wednesday that the suspect has been living in the United States illegally.
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, made his first appearance in court in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, whose July 18 disappearance while out jogging set off a massive search.
In a court document, defense attorney Allan M. Richards stated that an employer has said Rivera has legal permission to be in the U.S. The document named Craig Lang, a former head of the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s three public universities. Lang is co-owner of a dairy that employed Rivera.
Rivera’s immigration status was confirmed by an E-Verify electronic immigration status check, the Lang family said in a statement.
Richards sought a gag order and said comments about the case by President Donald Trump would “poison the entire possible pool of jury members.”
He also asked that the proceedings be closed.
“The government has weighed in at the highest levels with a predisposition that my client is guilty,” he said.
Rivera, who was ordered held on $5 million bond, has allegedly confessed to the killing, which was quickly thrust into the immigration debate shaping the midterm elections.
Trump seized on the man’s arrest on Tuesday to call the nation’s immigration laws “a disgrace” that will only be fixed by electing more Republicans. Iowa’s Republican governor, facing a tough re-election challenge in November, blasted an immigration system that “allowed a predator like this to live in our community.” And Iowa’s two GOP U.S. senators called the death a tragedy that “could have been prevented.”
Rivera led investigators early Tuesday to a body believed to be Tibbetts in a cornfield about 12 miles (19 kilometers) southeast of Brooklyn, Iowa, where she was last seen going for an evening run, Iowa 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.
Within hours, Trump noted the arrest at a rally in West Virginia.
“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,” Trump told the crowd in Charleston. “Should’ve never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad. The immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting them changed, but we have to get more Republicans. We have to get ‘em.”
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said residents were heartbroken and angry. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst vowed that they “cannot allow these tragedies to continue.”
Trump has made crackdown on illegal immigration a core policy of his administration. He often has claimed widespread crime 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 teens. Trump also has held events at the White House with members of “angel families,” whose relatives were killed by immigrants.
Although Trump claims legal U.S. residents are less likely to commit crime, several studies from social scientists and the libertarian think tank Cato Institute have concluded 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 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.
In a statement late Tuesday, Yarrabee Farms said Rivera had worked at its farms for the last four years and was an employee in good standing. The Brooklyn-based company said it was shocked to hear that Rivera was charged in Tibbetts’ death. Yarrabee Farms is owned by the family of Craig Lang, a prominent Republican who previously served as president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.
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.
Rivera’s Facebook page described him as being from Guayabillo, a community of less than 500 people in the Mexican state of Guerrero. It’s about a three-hour drive from the resort city of Acapulco.
Investigators said they zeroed in on Rivera after obtaining footage from surveillance cameras in Brooklyn. The footage showed a Chevy Malibu connected to Rivera that was driving back and forth as Tibbetts was running in the area, Rahn said.
An affidavit attached to the criminal complaint against Rivera alleged that he admitted to investigators 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 said Rivera panicked and then said he blacked out. Rivera next remembers seeing her earphones on his lap, and taking her bloody body out of the trunk of his car, it said.
Rivera was cooperating with investigators and speaking with the help of a translator, Rahn said. An autopsy was planned for Wednesday.
A conviction on first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole in Iowa, which does not have the death penalty.
Tibbetts would have started her junior year at the University of Iowa, where she was a psychology major.
Her family released a statement Wednesday thanking people from around the world for the “outpouring of love and support that has been shared in Mollie’s name.”
The statement added, “We know that many of you will join us as we continue to carry Mollie in our hearts forever.”