Suspect in Mollie Tibbetts' killing enters not guilty plea

Cristhian Bahena Rivera faces murder charge

By RAY SANCHEZ AND MARLENA BALDACCI, CNN
Poweshiek County Sheriff via CNN

Cristhian Rivera, 24, has been charged with first-degree murder in the disappearance of Mollie Tibbetts, according to arrest documents from the Poweshiek County Sheriff's Office.

(CNN) - The man accused of pursuing and killing college student Mollie Tibbetts in Iowa pleaded not guilty during arraignment Wednesday.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, entered his not guilty plea to a charge of first-degree murder through a translator at a court in Poweshiek County.

His attorney, Chad Frese, told the court his client has a "limited understanding of English and limited education."

Tibbetts went missing in July after going out for an evening run in Brooklyn, Iowa, and her disappearance prompted an extensive search.

Bahena Rivera, who confessed to following her as she ran on a country road, last month led authorities to the field where a body believed to be hers was buried under corn stalks, officials said.

A preliminary report from the autopsy on Tibbetts' body determined that her death was a "homicide resulting from multiple sharp force injuries," the Iowa State Medical Examiner said.

Rivera, a Mexican national who officials said came to the U.S. illegally, answered "yes" Wednesday when agreeing to wave his right to a trial within 90 days. His trial is set for April 16, 2019.

After the hearing, Bahena Rivera spoke briefly with his translator and attorney. Wearing a black-and-white striped jail outfit, he looked around the courtroom as he was led out after his arraignment.

At a previous hearing, another defense attorney, Allan Richards, said Bahena Rivera came to the U.S. as a minor, held a job in the community and has no prior criminal record.

Rivera had worked for the past four years at Yarrabee Farms, a nearby dairy farm.

In applying for the job, Bahena Rivera provided a state ID and Social Security card that was verified through the Social Security Administration's verification system, according to Dane Lang, co-owner and manager of Yarrabee Farms.

But those were false forms of ID that did not identify him as Rivera, he said.

"What we learned in the last 24 hours is that our employee was not who he said he was," Lang said.

On Wednesday, the court confirmed Rivera's "true and correct name" as Cristhian Bahena Rivera.

Lang said Bahena Rivera was an employee in good standing who came to work on time and got along with his coworkers. Neither Lang nor his employees noticed anything suspicious about Rivera's behavior after Tibbetts vanished, he said.

Yarrabee Farms is owned in part by Craig Lang, a prominent Iowa Republican who ran for Iowa secretary of agriculture this summer.

Tibbetts, 20, was studying psychology at the University of Iowa and wanted to get a doctorate and write books, her father said. Her July 18 disappearance set off an exhaustive search that brought in hundreds of leads but no clues as to where she was.

Authorities had been looking for Tibbetts for about a month when they found home surveillance video that showed a car following a woman during her jog.

In an arrest affidavit, Bahena Rivera said he remembered getting mad at Tibbetts but what happened afterward was "blocked" from his memory. When he came to, he realized he had put a bleeding Tibbetts in his trunk, and then he carried her into a cornfield and left her there, the affidavit states.

He later led authorities to a cornfield, where they found a body covered in corn leaves. Tibbetts' clothing was also found at the scene.

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