Mollie Tibbetts trial: Blood in suspect's truck came from slain Iowa student, DNA analysts say

Cristhian Bahena Rivera sat in a courtroom Friday for the third straight day of his trial for the murder of Mollie Tibbetts.

Tibbetts was a 20-year-old college student who went missing after going for a run in July 2018. Authorities found her body in a cornfield the next month and say Bahena Rivera’s confession led them there.

Blood found in the trunk of Rivera’s Chevy Malibu was an exact match for the University of Iowa student.

Tara Scott, a criminalist in the DNA section of Iowa’s crime lab, said she analyzed a swab taken from a blood stain found on the trunk seal of Rivera’s car after investigators recovered the body of Mollie Tibbetts.

"The profile I had from Mollie Tibbetts and the profile from that blood matched," Scott testified. "They were exactly the same."

Before the trial, investigators said Bahena Rivera, 26, confessed to approaching Tibbetts as she ran around town. Officer Pamela Romero testified the defendant claimed Tibbetts tried to slap him and yelled at him when he started running behind her.

She said the defendant claimed not to remember what happened after the two started fighting.


Mollie Tibbetts was a 20-year-old college student who disappeared after going for a run in July 2018. (Source: Family handout)

After initially denying any involvement, Bahena Rivera led them to Tibbitts remains in a cornfield, Romero testified. When pressed about what happened to Tibbetts, Romero said the defendant responded "I brought you here, didn’t I? So that means that I did it. I don’t remember how I did it."

Investigators told the court they were able to pinpoint where Tibbetts went missing by tracking her location through her phone. 

"She had been jogging on 380 5th Avenue. She had her phone with her," Poweshiek County Deputy Steve Kivi testified. "And all of a sudden, her phone is traveling like 55 or 60 miles an hour south down a gravel road. And then it just shuts off in the middle of nowhere."

RELATED: Mollie Tibbetts: Video evidence shows Iowa student running, vehicle tied to crime

Surveillance footage shows a jogger in the area and a black Chevrolet Malibu passing by her several times. Authorities said they later spotted the car being driven by Bahena Rivera.

They said the blood found in the car’s trunk was later a DNA match for Tibbetts. 

Prosecutors have used the DNA evidence, surveillance video showing Bahena Rivera’s Chevy Malibu driving near where Tibbetts was running, and the suspect’s partial confession to build their case. The trial is expected to continue next week.

Even so, the defense has worked to cast suspicion on others, including Tibbetts’ boyfriend and residents who had been investigated because of their past behavior toward women.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera 2

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 26-year-old father of a young daughter, had no criminal history before being charged with first-degree murder in Mollie Tibbetts’ death. (Source: FOX Edge)

Criminalist Amy Johnson testified that investigators initially overlooked the blood stain on the trunk’s rubber seal, but found it during an additional search two days later.

Scott said that stain was the first match for Tibbetts’ DNA. Later analysis of blood found on the trunk’s liner also was a match for Tibbetts, whose DNA had been collected from one of her water bottles during the investigation into her disappearance and from her body when it was discovered in the field, she said.

Other blood spots found in the trunk and on several items in it did not have enough material to compare for DNA purposes, she said.

Members of the jury of 15 people, including three alternates, appeared to pay close attention during the DNA testimony, with at least three jotting notes in their court-issued notebooks.

The trial is expected to last two weeks. If the defendant is convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.

Earlier, prosecutors showed jurors several crime scene photos of what Tibbetts body' looked like on the day it was found. It was covered in cornstalks, with only her running shoes sticking out and visible.

After investigators removed the stalks, photos showed her legs were spread apart and she was wearing only socks and a sports bra. Shorts, underpants and a headband were found further into the cornfield, Johnson testified.

Investigators testified they did not recover any sperm from those items. Romero said Bahena Rivera had referred to Tibbetts "hot" but gave no indication that he sexually assaulted her.

Judge Joel Yates on Friday seized a camera memory card from a photographer and threatened her with jail after she acknowledged taking photographs of jurors, which is prohibited under Iowa court rules.

The photographer — reporting for the Daily Iowan, the student newspaper at the University of Iowa — told Yates that an editor said it was OK to photograph jurors and that she was unaware it wasn't allowed.

She erased the photos in front of the judge, and Yates took possession of the memory card, saying he believed that was sufficient to ensure no photos of the jurors would be disseminated.

This story was reported from Atlanta. The Associated Press contributed.