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How Iowa Police Nabbed Murder Suspect Cristhian Rivera And Found Mollie Tibbets' Body

Surveillance footage handed over to police by a neighbor was ultimately the biggest break in the month-long case, authorities said.

By Ethan Harfenist
Mollie Tibbetts

The month-long search for University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts was from start to finish a community-wide effort. As such, it seems appropriate that what ultimately led police to what they believe is the 20-year-old’s body and the man accused of murdering her were clues provided by a neighbor in the small town of Brooklyn, Iowa.

During a Tuesday press conference in Poweshiek County, Richard Rahn, of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, described how authorities linked Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, to Tibbetts’ disappearance and alleged murder. Investigators in Iowa said that after weeks of police work and grassroots action—putting Mollie’s face on shirts and yard signs, maintaining a website dedicated to the search effort, relaying thousands of tips to authorities—the big break in the case came in the form of surveillance footage caught by a neighbor’s security camera.

Roughly a week ago, the resident handed over the tape, which Rahn said authorities pored over for hours. It showed Tibbetts jogging in an area east of Brooklyn, and a black Chevy Malibu following her, after first driving back and forth several times. Authorities linked the vehicle to Rivera.

“From that we were able to track his patterns and the routes that he took,” Rahn said during Tuesday’s presser. “We were also able to find Mollie running on this video and we were able to determine that he was one of the last ones to have seen Mollie running.”

Rivera, for his part, didn’t try to run when authorities detained him on Monday. Although Rahn noted during the press conference that this footage was instrumental in finding Rivera, he told NBC News’ “Today” on Wednesday that the suspect hadn’t previously appeared in any other cases.

“He certainly wasn’t known to the local police department,” Rahn said. “It’s not like he was on anybody’s radar throughout the investigation.”

Authorities interviewed Rivera soon after arresting him, listening to his tangled and spotty version of the incident. 

During the ensuing interview, Rivera said that he approached Tibbetts as he saw her jogging. He then began running “alongside or behind her,” according to Rahn, prompting Tibbetts to threaten to call the police if he didn’t leave her alone. Investigators said that Rivera proceeded to give chase, after which he claimed to have “blacked out,” Rahn added.

Rivera told authorities that he came to at an intersection on the outskirts of Brooklyn, according to the police affidavit released Tuesday. The document revealed that Rivera “’blocked’ his ‘memory’ which is what he does when he gets very upset and doesn’t remember anything after that until he came to an intersection.” After driving around a bit, Rivera said he went back to an entrance of a cornfield. Only after noticing a piece of an earphone on his lap did he remember that he had Tibbetts in the trunk of his car, and as he went to retrieve her “noticed blood on the side of her head,” the affidavit says.

Rivera then told authorities that he dragged Tibbetts’ body to a “secluded location in a cornfield” and left her body there, face up, covered only with some corn leaves, according to the document.

Despite saying he “blacked out,” Rivera on Tuesday curiously guided law enforcement to the location of Tibbetts’ body from memory, according to the affidavit. However, he used his phone to demonstrate the route he took from Brooklyn to get there.

“Based on the interview with Rivera, the clothing found at the scene where the body was located, and tentative identification by the medical examiner based on information about certain articles of her clothing, the deceased female is Mollie Tibbetts,” the affidavit says.

Tibbetts disappeared on July 18. The 20-year-old University of Iowa student was watching her boyfriend Dalton Jack’s dog the day she vanished.

Rivera is set to make his first court appearance Wednesday to face a first-degree murder charge, according to CNN. An autopsy is due to be completed Wednesday to determine Tibbetts’ exact cause of death.

[Photo: Poweshiek County Sheriff's Office]