Farmer shocked that worker suspected in Iowa woman’s slaying
BROOKLYN, Iowa (AP) — For years, the young man from Mexico presented himself as a legal U.S. resident and reliable worker at a family dairy farm in small town Iowa, his employer said.
But this week, the image of Cristhian Bahena Rivera transformed in a matter of hours. Now he’s a man accused of illegally living and working in the U.S. on fraudulent documents, of being a predator who kidnapped and killed a beloved young woman, and to some, the monstrous face of a lax immigration system.
Rivera made his initial court appearance Wednesday in a rural Iowa courthouse on a first-degree murder charge in the death of 20-year-old college student Mollie Tibbetts. He sat stone-faced and handcuffed in a striped jail jumpsuit as he said through an interpreter that he understood he faced life in prison if convicted. He was ordered jailed on a $5 million cash-only bond after a prosecutor said he was a danger to the community who was accused of a “heinous crime.”
The turn of events stunned the prominent farm family that employed him for the last four years. They said the 24-year-old worked under a different name and was a good employee who helped take care of their cows and got along with co-workers.
Even after Tibbetts disappeared on July 18 while out for an evening run in the small central Iowa town of Brooklyn, Rivera kept coming to work and “nobody saw a difference” in his demeanor, said Dane Lang, the manager of Yarrabee Farms. His colleagues were stunned Tuesday to learn that he was not only the suspect in Tibbetts’ death, but that he had a different real name than what he went by on the farm, Lang said.
“Our employee is not who he said he was,” Lang said at a news conference at the farm. “This was shocking to us.”
When Rivera was hired in 2014, he presented an out-of-state government-issued photo identification and a matching Social Security card, Lang said. That information was run through the Social Security Administration’s employment-verification system and checked out, he said.
Rivera’s defense attorney, Allan Richards, acknowledged Wednesday that his client received his paycheck under a different name and that he was uncertain of his immigration status. He said he was prepared to argue that his client was in the country legally, noting that he came to the U.S. as a minor and had worked and paid taxes for years.
“He showed up every day and he did his job. He was patted on his back. They turned a blind eye to the reality of documentation,” Richards said.
Rivera lived in a trailer owned by his employer, and is the father of a young girl.
Investigators say they believe Rivera abducted Tibbetts as she went on an evening jog, killed her and dumped her body in a cornfield. A judge on Wednesday agreed to increase Rivera’s bond to $5 million from $1 million after prosecutor Scott Brown noted he was a potential flight risk who was charged with a “heinous crime.”
His attorney, Richards, lashed out at President Donald Trump for publicly declaring his client guilty within hours of his arrest Tuesday. He said his client was a hard worker with the equivalent of an eighth-grade education, had no prior criminal record and deserved the presumption of innocence and a fair trial.