Police charged an illegal immigrant Tuesday with killing Mollie Tibbetts and dumping her body in a cornfield after he led police to the body, in a startling conclusion to a monthlong search for the Iowa college student.
The first-degree murder charge against Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 24-year-old Mexican, immediately inflamed the immigration debate, with President Trump saying voters needed to send more Republicans to Washington to stiffen laws.
“You saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman — should have never happened — illegally in our country,” the president said at a West Virginia rally Tuesday night.
Police had searched for a month for Tibbetts, who disappeared while running in Brooklyn, Iowa, the evening of July 18. The break came when they obtained video from a camera in the area at the time of her disappearance, identified a car in the video and connected it to Mr. Rivera.
He was questioned Monday, and he described his encounter with a young woman he saw out jogging. He said he parked his car and ran alongside her, then panicked when she threatened to call police. He told investigators he had “blocked” the next events from his memory — until he found her body in his car — and he ditched her in a cornfield.
“The search for Mollie is over, but the demand for justice has just begun,” said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. “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.”
At a news conference in Iowa, investigators said Mr. Rivera had been living in the area where he held a job. Authorities didn’t say what kind of work he was doing.
“We have confirmed with Homeland Security Investigations that he is an illegal alien, and we believe he’s been in this area now for four to seven years,” said Rick Rahn, a special agent in the state’s division of criminal investigation.
Mr. Rivera told police he had seen Tibbetts before. It was not clear why they interacted that July day, but police said he seems to have circled around her as she was jogging, then stopped his car and began to run alongside her.
He told police that she grabbed her phone and told him she was going to call police. He said he panicked, got mad, and then has no memory of events until he “came to” at an intersection and drove into a cornfield, according to an affidavit filed with the charges.
He realized he had her body in his car and dragged it into the field, where he left it face up, covered in corn stalks.
After police found him, he was able to guide them to the body.
“He followed her and seemed to be drawn to her on that particular day. And for whatever reason chose to abduct her,” Mr. Rahn said.
Tibbetts‘ slaying is likely to join that of Kate Steinle, the 32-year-old woman killed while walking the San Francisco waterfront with her father in 2015, as flashpoints in the immigration debate.
Steinle was killed by an illegal immigrant who had been deported repeatedly but sneaked back into the U.S. each time. The Department of Homeland Security had him slated for yet another deportation, but he escaped their control after he was released from jail under San Francisco’s sanctuary policy protecting illegal immigrants.
Iowa investigators Tuesday wouldn’t go into more details about Mr. Rivera’s immigration history.
But the immigration aspects of the slaying are already playing out in the Iowa governor’s race, with Ms. Reynolds, a Republican, pointing to a broken immigration system as a factor in the killing.
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, Iowa’s two Republicans in the Senate, echoed the governor, blaming the immigration system for allowing a “predator” to roam the community.
“Too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws. We cannot allow these tragedies to continue,” the senators said.
They pointed to another case from several years back in which another young Iowa college student, Sarah Root, was killed by an illegal immigrant in a drunken-driving collision in Nebraska. He posted bail, and police, unable to hold him, repeatedly tried to get Homeland Security to place a detainer on him to keep him in custody. Obama administration officials at the time said his crime wasn’t serious enough to warrant a detainer.
The suspect, Eswin Mejia, disappeared into the shadows and is believed to have escaped back to Honduras. He is now on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “Most Wanted” list.
That slaying gave rise to legislation known as Sarah’s Law, which would require ICE to take custody of illegal immigrants charged with crimes resulting in death or serious injury. The bill still awaits action.
Fred Hubbell, Ms. Reynolds’ Democratic opponent in November, did not mention immigration in his reaction. Instead, he offered condolences for the family.
“This is truly heartbreaking,” he said. “For Mollie’s parents, her family and friends, any words today will be of little comfort.”
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