IOWA CITY, Iowa - An Iowa jury heard opening statements Wednesday morning in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who is accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts in 2018.
Tibbetts was a 20-year-old college student who disappeared after going for a run that July. Her disappearance prompted a widespread search that came to an end a month later when investigators say Rivera led them to her body.
"I’d like you to focus on the three primary aspects of the state’s evidence that point to the defendant as Molly Tibbetts’ killer," Klaver said to jurors.
According to Klaver, those aspects included video evidence, DNA analysis and a partial confession by the defendant.
Authorities said surveillance video showed a Chevy Malibu circling Tibbetts as she ran. Deputies said they later found Rivera driving that same car around town.
Mollie Tibbetts was a 20-year-old college student who disappeared after going for a run in July 2018. (Source: Family handout)
Bahena Rivera, now 26, later told police that he drove past her and turned around to get a second look because he thought she was "hot," Klaver said.
After questioning him, authorities said Rivera admitted to killing her in a panic after Tibbetts threatened to call the police. He told them her body was buried in a pile of leaves in a cornfield.
An autopsy determined Tibbetts died of sharp force injuries dues to being stabbed. During opening statements, Klaver said an autopsy found that she had been stabbed from seven to 12 times in the chest, ribs, neck and skull.
Earlier this week, prosecutors prepared jurors to hear graphic details and see disturbing evidence of a violent death.
"We’re going to talk about the violent death of a young girl, Mollie Tibbetts," said Scott Brown, an assistant Iowa attorney general. "It’s not going to be pleasant."
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old father of a young daughter, had no criminal history before being charged with first-degree murder in Mollie Tibbetts’ death. (Source: FOX Edge)
Nearly three years have passed since Tibbetts’ remains were found and investigators have not found a murder weapon, but said the blood found in the trunk of the Malibu matches Tibbetts’.
"There can be no other conclusion that the defendant killed Molly Tibbetts," Klaver continued.
Rivera, a 26-year-old father of a young daughter, had no criminal history before being charged with first-degree murder in Tibbetts’ death. Defense lawyer Chad Frese hinted he is prepared to argue his client gave a false confession after hours of questioning.
He also told the jury that Rivera’s struggle with the English language should have no bearing on the verdict, though his Latino heritage served as a catalyst for national attention.
If convicted, Rivera faces life in prison without parole.
Rivera may have entered the United States illegally 10 years ago. From then-President Donald Trump to Iowa’s governor, Republicans cited the case to strengthen their call for tighter immigration restrictions.
The anti-immigrant sentiment grew so menacing, Rivera’s employer faced death threats and White supremacists’ robocalls flooded the Hawkeye State. Tibbetts’ family lowered the temperature when they demanded politicians stop using her death to promote an agenda they said she would have opposed.
The trial is expected to last two weeks at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport.
This story was reported from Atlanta. The Associated Press contributed.