Iowa Public Radio | By Kate Payne
A judge has ruled that prosecutors will not have to release information on other potential suspects in the case of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who was convicted of first degree murder in May for the killing of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts. Bahena Rivera’s attorneys are seeking a new trial, after new witnesses independently named the same suspect, who is alleged to have confessed to killing Tibbetts and to have been involved with a sex trafficking ring.
In a ruling released Friday, District Court Judge Joel Yates sided with the prosecution, denying the defense’s requests for information on other suspects allegedly involved in sex trafficking-related investigations.
Yates ruled that while he has the authority to order the information released, he found the requests overly broad and didn’t see how they were were relevant to Bahena Rivera’s case.
“It is difficult for the Court to see how the great deal of that information could possibly be relevant to the Defendant, to Mollie Tibbetts, or to the Motion for New Trial. Further, those investigations are likely to contain confidential information about a variety of people, and Defendant’s examination of those investigations would be nothing more than a fishing expedition,” Yates’ ruling reads in part, echoing arguments made by prosecutors.
In a hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse on Thursday, Iowa Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown dismissed the defense’s efforts as a “fishing expedition” and said there is no credibility to the witnesses’ claims that Tibbetts’ case is connected to other suspects involved in sex trafficking in the area.
“No evidence supports it. None. Zero,” Brown said. “There’s nothing there.”
The requests by defense attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese were filed after two new witnesses independently came forward during the trial to name a new suspect, who the defense identified in court as Gavin Jones. On May 26, an inmate who was incarcerated with Jones and Jones’ former girlfriend both approached law enforcement, saying that Jones had claimed he had killed Tibbetts.
According to the inmate’s testimony, Jones said that he and another individual were involved in a sex trafficking ring run by a 50-year-old man and that they saw Tibbetts “bound and gagged” in a “trap house” run by the man. It was the 50-year-old man who directed Jones and the other individual to stab and kill Tibbetts and to frame a Hispanic man for her death, according to the witness.
The inmate told investigators he believed that Tibbetts was going to be sex trafficked but that the publicity around her case “got too big too quick and something went wrong.”
In court filings, the defense also named 50-year-old James Lowe, who is alleged to have run a sex trafficking ring in New Sharon, near where Tibbetts disappeared. A search warrant for Lowe indicated that he met one of his alleged victims at a Casey’s store in Tibbetts’ hometown of Brooklyn.
Lowe is a former live-in boyfriend of the mother of Xavior Harrelson, an 11-year-old boy who disappeared from Montezuma on May 27.
At Thursday’s hearing, Bahena Rivera’s defense team argued that the witness testimony and alleged connections to sex traffickers in the area are significant and warrant investigation. Attorney Chad Frese pointed to a number of other missing persons cases in the area, implying the disappearances may be linked.
“There’s something rotten within this area. And [the prosecutors] don’t want to help us, provide us any information,” Frese said. “This is a small area. Ten kids are missing. That’s not coincidental. And we think it’s exculpatory.”
Speaking to journalists after the hearing, the defense attorneys further underscored what they claim is a link between the disappearances of Tibbetts and Harrelson.
“We think that those two are inextricably linked,” Frese said. “I mean, Xavior Harrelson was abducted on the second to last day of our jury trial. That’s not coincidental.”
During the hearing, Brown said it was “unconscionable” for the defense to bring up information in the missing boy’s case, which is currently under investigation. Brown maintains there is “no evidence” to connect the two cases.
Frese meanwhile claimed that the information from the two new witnesses and his client’s recollection “lines up perfectly,” though there are apparent discrepancies between the accounts.
Bahena Rivera’s testimony at trial was that two masked men abducted him from his home and forced him to drive them around as they followed Tibbetts, kidnapped and killed her, and put her body in the trunk of his car, all on the evening she disappeared.
His statements at trial are not consistent with what he told investigators during an 11-hour interview in August of 2018, saying that he acted alone, confronting Tibbetts as she ran, “blacking out” and then hiding her body in a cornfield.
The defense has said their client’s account of the masked men has remained consistent since they first spoke with him in August of 2018 and has not changed since the two witnesses came forward. According to the Freses, Bahena Rivera has never mentioned a second location or a “trap house.”
When asked how to account for those apparent discrepancies between the witnesses’ accounts and his client’s, Chad Frese argued the stories are consistent enough.
“We don’t know if we can line up the dots better if we have more information. But the major points, they line up,” Frese said. “The facts aren’t going to be all neat and pretty. But the major facts are gonna line up.”
Bahena Rivera had been scheduled to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Thursday, the mandatory sentence for first degree murder in Iowa. His sentencing has been delayed while the defense’s requests are dealt with.
Bahena Rivera is slated to be back in Poweshiek County court on July 27 for what is expected to be an all-day hearing on a motion for a new trial.