It’s summer in southeast Iowa, and police are desperately searching for any sign of missing student Mollie Tibbetts. She hasn’t been seen for over a month, and a lengthy investigation has finally led law enforcement to this isolated cornfield just outside of town. But what officers discover there only deepens the mystery – and sparks a controversy that continues to this day.
Mollie was born in San Francisco, California, on May 8, 1998, as the second of three children – and the only daughter – born to Laura Calderwood and Rob Tibbetts. Mollie’s parents split up when she was a second-grader, however, and the young girl relocated with her mother and brothers, Jake and Scott, to Iowa.
But even though Mollie and her father no longer lived together, they remained close; the pair shared a particular passion for literature. And as she grew, Mollie additionally developed a love of the stage, progressing from bit parts to lead roles in school productions.
A confident public speaker, Mollie also became an important member of her high school speech team and developed a close-knit circle of friends. And when the time came for Mollie to choose her future career, several of her buddies were unsurprised that the empathetic, problem-solving teen had opted to attend the University of Iowa to pursue psychology.
By July 2018 Mollie, then 20, had completed her freshman year at college and was spending the summer at home with her mother in Brooklyn, IA – a tight-knit community located some 70 miles from Des Moines. There, she was also enjoying some free time with her boyfriend of three years, Dalton Jack.
Ever ambitious, Mollie hoped to go on to study at graduate school and eventually practice as a psychologist. In the meantime, though, she was excited about a trip to the Dominican Republic with Dalton and his brother Blake. Apparently, Blake was getting married on the Caribbean island, and he had joked to Dalton that it would be the perfect spot for a proposal.
And on the evening of July 18, Dalton was on a job with his family’s company close to Dubuque, IA – some 130 miles northeast of Brooklyn. Blake was a similar distance away in Houghton, IA, visiting his bride-to-be. And with the brothers occupied elsewhere, Mollie was staying in their home to take care of their dog.
At one point, the 20-year-old – a keen athlete – also left the Jacks’ home in order to go for a run. In fact, she was spotted enjoying a jog through the town at around 7:30 p.m., dressed in a pink top and darker-hued shorts. But when Mollie did not report for her shift at a daycare center the next day, her family grew concerned.
On July 19, then, Mollie was officially reported as missing. And, soon, a full-scale investigation was underway. But even though police departments in a number of states dedicated themselves to finding the young woman, they came up empty-handed. Some strange details about her disappearance began to emerge in the interim, however.
According to Dalton, he had taken delivery of a Snapchat message from Mollie after she had been spotted jogging through Brooklyn; that photograph had appeared to show the young woman indoors. Moreover, a neighbor claimed that he had been questioned by investigators after data from Mollie’s activity tracker revealed that she had passed by his house on the evening that she had disappeared. The neighbor also alleged that investigators had told him Mollie had accessed her computer after the last confirmed sighting of the student.
Furthermore, Dalton and Blake would find themselves at the center of local rumors. Police were soon able to confirm their alibis, though, and this information quashed any suspicions against the brothers – although law enforcement were no closer to finding out the truth as a result.
Indeed, although police would collect some 2,300 tip-offs relating to Mollie’s disappearance over the coming weeks, they still had no idea what had happened to the pretty, popular girl. Then, around a month after Mollie had gone missing, a Brooklyn resident offered home surveillance footage to the investigation.
And after poring over hours’ worth of images, investigators were finally able to spot Mollie on the film. There was more, too – a suspicious black vehicle could be seen circling the lone woman. Soon, police were able to trace the car to Cristhian Bahena Rivera; he was a Mexican immigrant who worked at Brooklyn’s Yarrabee Farms.
Then, on August 21, Rivera led investigators to a remote cornfield located some 12 miles outside of Brooklyn. And even though the area had been combed through before, the searchers soon discovered something horrifying hidden beneath a cluster of stalks: a dead body later confirmed to be that of the missing student.
According to an autopsy, the victim had suffered “multiple sharp force injuries” that had resulted in her death. But what had happened to trigger such a violent incident? Allegedly, Rivera confessed via a translator that he had been watching Mollie jogging and had approached her; ultimately, though, he had grown angry with the young woman.
Apparently, Mollie had threatened to call the police on Rivera before running away – at which point the suspect had reportedly chased after her. But according to a police affidavit, Rivera had then “blacked out” – only later regaining consciousness close to a local intersection. After having led police to the body, the suspect subsequently found himself in court facing charges of murder in the first degree.
The investigation is still ongoing, with the results of a further autopsy due in fall 2018. Meanwhile, though, the Tibbetts family have not been left to grieve in peace. In fact, Rivera’s status as a Mexican immigrant – and the question of whether or not he was legally present in the U.S. – has led to some individuals arguably using the tragedy for political gain.
According to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson, the agency could not find any indication that Rivera was in the country lawfully. Subsequently, some – such as U.S. President Donald Trump – have seized upon the incident to make a link between illegal immigration and violent crime.
However, Mollie’s family have been quick to reject any attempt to make the alleged crime about immigration. Instead, Mollie’s cousin Sandi Tibbetts Murphy has chosen to highlight the issue of violence committed by men against women. “[The killer] could have been a citizen, born in this country; he could have been an older, white man from anywhere; he could have been a man from Mollie’s world,” Tibbetts Murphy wrote in a Facebook post. “Mollie was murdered because a man denied her right to say no.”
What’s more, Tibbetts Murphy has rallied against the politicians who have seemingly used Mollie’s death to further their own agendas. “You do not have permission to callously use this tragedy to demonize an entire population for the acts of one man,” she continued on Facebook. “No. We reclaim our Mollie.”