The body of missing Iowa college student, 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts, was found Tuesday, and authorities charged undocumented immigrant Christian Bahena-Rivera with first-degree murder for her death. Tibbetts disappeared from Brooklyn, Iowa, on July 18, and the case made national headlines as the days ticked by with no sign of the would-be University of Iowa junior. The search totaled 34 days as federal, state, and local authorities scoured fields and ditches in rural Poweshiek County for any trace of Tibbetts, who was last seen out for a run around 7:30 p.m. She was dog-sitting for her boyfriend, who was out of town at the time.
Investigators looked closely at Tibbetts’ social media, particularly Snapchat, where she was communicating with her boyfriend shortly before her death, as well as her Fitbit tracker, to try to narrow the search for a suspect. Before Tuesday’s breakthrough, when the 24-year-old Bahena-Rivera led detectives to Tibbetts’ body, the search had been narrowed to five locations, according to authorities, including a carwash, Tibbetts’ boyfriend’s home, a truck stop, and two nearby farms. Investigators said surveillance video helped them identify Bahena-Rivera as one of the last people to see Tibbetts alive. Bahena-Rivera is a native of Mexico and had lived in the area for somewhere between four and seven years, according to Rick Rahn, the special agent in charge at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
What exactly happened on the night in question is not totally clear yet, but investigators say Bahena-Rivera followed Tibbetts and abducted her. Before doing so he said he ran along beside her before she took out her phone and threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave her alone. According to court documents, the suspect told investigators he put Tibbetts in the trunk of his car, saw blood on the side of her head when he took her out, and later left Tibbetts’ body in a nearby cornfield, covered with corn stalks. “I can’t really speak to you about the motive,” Rahn said during the press conference. “I can just tell you it seems that he followed her and seemed to be drawn to her on that particular day and for whatever reason he chose to abduct her.”
An autopsy scheduled for Wednesday will provide more information on how Tibbetts died, but the case has already ignited fury on right wing media because of Bahena-Rivera’s immigration status. President Trump has consistently and purposefully tried to paint all undocumented immigrants as criminals, conflating families fleeing poverty and violence with members of the gang MS-13. It’s a theme that runs right through the Tibbetts case and the GOP strategy for the upcoming midterm elections, and is a theme that will continue as a point of particular emphasis, particularly on Fox News and other far right news sites. For some indication of how Fox News prioritized the Tibbetts story, on Tuesday evening, perhaps the busiest and most consequential news day of 2018, and arguably the Trump presidency so far, the Fox News website was leading with the abduction and murder above the conviction of the president’s former campaign head on multiple counts of fraud and other crimes and above Trump’s personal lawyer pleading guilty to federal crimes of his own while implicating the president in those crimes.
During a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday night, Trump mentioned the Tibbetts case, using the framing he has in the past for similar crimes committed by immigrants, as a means to push for a harder line on immigrants of all types. “You heard about today with the illegal … alien coming in very sadly from Mexico,” Trump told the crowd. “And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman. Should have never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad.”