Unknown to Mollie Tibbetts, thousands of people would soon recognise her face.
Not just in her small hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, but all across America. Even politicians would go on to say her name. But before 18 July, 2018, Mollie, 20, was just a normal girl, who bickered with her brothers and loved Harry Potter.
A student at the University of Iowa, she was studying psychology, but expressed herself through performance and writing, and loved cross-country running.
Mollie lived at home with her mum, Laura Calderwood, and two brothers. Her parents had separated when she was seven and just weeks earlier, she had been “best man” when her dad Rob Tibbetts remarried. All the guests had been moved by her speech.
She had been dating Dalton Jack for three years, and he was about to propose. Dalton had bought an engagement ring and hidden it away in his bedroom, waiting for the right moment to pop the question.
Dalton was out of town working in construction, and Mollie was dog-sitting at his brother’s.
After sending Dalton a Snapchat message, Mollie texted her mum to find out what was for dinner, as she would be heading over soon. “Brats,” Laura had replied, referring to a type of Bratwurst sausage. Mollie sent back, “OK.”
With the heat of the day subsiding, Mollie donned her neon blue and pink running shoes, put in her wireless headphones, attached her iPhone to her arm, and headed out for an evening run.
Witnesses last saw her at 7.30pm, running in her pink sports bra. Mollie didn’t turn up to for dinner at her mum’s. And the next day, she didn’t appear at the daycare centre where she had a summer job. A huge search began.
Hundreds of people turned out to look for Mollie in buildings and in the open spaces where she had been running. Missing posters with Mollie’s face on appeared on the side of cars, wrapped on trees, billboards and in every shop in town.
Loved ones set up a Facebook group to gather information and make appeals. The “Bring Mollie Tibbetts Home Safe” reward fund reached nearly $400,000.
Investigators used information from Mollie’s mobile phone and the Fitbit she wore when she was jogging to try and track her movements. Worryingly, her phone had been moving slowly, at around 10mph, until 8.35pm when it rapidly increased to 60mph. Had Mollie got into a car?
Police looked for security footage from houses along Mollie’s running route, and one had captured her silhouette jogging by. Disturbingly, it also showed a black Chevrolet Malibu driving slowly behind her.
The distinctive vehicle had customised chrome mirrors and handles – and repeatedly drove in and out of the frame. It looked like someone was following her.
Soon, the car was found. And after Mollie had been missing a month, Cristhian Bahena Rivera was brought in for questioning. The 24-year-old was a worker on a local dairy farm. He was an illegal Mexican immigrant who had been working under a false name. He lived on site in a trailer and had a daughter with an ex-girlfriend.
At first, Rivera denied having anything to do with Mollie’s disappearance. But police found Mollie’s blood in the boot of his car and, after a lengthy interrogation, he confessed. Rivera said he had seen Mollie running by and thought she was “hot”.
He said that after getting out of the car, he ran alongside her and she reached for her phone and threatened to call the police. Rivera said that Mollie had tried to slap him away and was screaming, which made him “angry”. This, he claimed, made him “black out”.
The next thing he remembered was driving, looking down and seeing Mollie’s wireless earphone. It reminded him that Mollie was in the trunk of his car.
He described carrying her bloodied body from the boot and laying her down in a field. After covering her with corn stalks, he
had driven away.
On 21 August, Rivera led police to a corn field in Poweshiek County, where Mollie’s decomposing body was found. She was partially dressed and only her bright running shoes were visible under the foliage.
When Rivera was pressed for more information, he said he couldn’t remember. “I brought you here, didn’t I?” he told an officer.
“So, that means I did it, right? I don’t remember how I did it.” Mollie had been stabbed between seven and 12 times in the chest, neck and skull.
Rivera was charged with first-degree murder and Mollie’s heartbroken loved ones mourned. It was the news they’d all feared the most. Mollie was dead.
Shortly afterwards, the fact that Rivera had been an illegal immigrant since he was a teenager allowed some politicians – and Donald Trump, then President – to blame US immigration laws for Mollie’s death.
The last thing those grieving wanted was for the tragedy to be hijacked to fuel hate. Mollie’s family said it was despicable and pleaded with politicians not to use her death to “advance a cause she vehemently opposed”. The murder also sparked a discussion about the dangers women face while out jogging.
During the trial this year, ribbons in Mollie’s favourite colour of teal lined the streets and local area for miles. The prosecution said the surveillance footage of Rivera following Mollie, the DNA in his boot, and his confession pointed out his clear guilt.
“When you put this evidence together, there can be no other conclusion than that the defendant killed Mollie Tibbetts,” they said.
They described defensive wounds on her right hand, suggesting that before losing consciousness, 5ft Mollie had fiercely fought for her life. One wound had penetrated her skull, and another her neck.
The shape of the injuries suggested the weapon, which was never found, was a single-edged knife blade. They also said that the motive could have been sexually led, as Mollie was found partially dressed.
The defence tried to lay blame elsewhere – even at Mollie’s boyfriend. Then Rivera took the stand and made shocking new allegations. He said that two masked men, one with a gun and one with a knife, appeared at his home that night when he was taking a shower. They forced him to get in his car and drive towards town.
Then they spotted Mollie and made him pull up.
One stayed in the car with him and the other went out and returned to put something heavy in the boot.
After threatening to hurt his ex-girlfriend and three-year-old daughter if he said anything, they ran off. Rivera told the court he found Mollie in the boot. “She was very heavy,” he said. “I picked her up and I put her in the corn field.”
Rivera could not explain why he’d been “chosen” that night, but said he’d falsely confessed to protect his daughter.
It was the opposite to his earlier confession and the jury didn’t believe him. In May this year, after a two-week trial, Rivera, 27, was found guilty of first-degree murder. His legal team tried for a new trial after people came forward suggesting Mollie’s death was linked to a sex-trafficking ring. The judge denied it.
At the sentencing in August, Mollie’s mum Laura faced the man who had murdered her daughter. “Mollie was a young woman who simply wanted to go on a quiet run, and you chose to violently and sadistically end that life,” she told him. “Because of your actions, Mr Rivera, I will never get to see my daughter become a mother.”
So much potential had been snatched away. Laura described discovering Mollie was dead and racing to tell relatives before they heard it elsewhere. Telling her mother was particularly hard, as she’d had faith her granddaughter would be found.
Laura also spoke about the fallout of Mollie’s death being used in the immigration debate. Immigrant families in the area had been forced to flee – including one who had unwittingly housed Rivera. Laura took in the family’s son so he could continue his studies.
The judge dismissed any idea of other suspects. “You, and you alone, forever changed the lives of those who loved Mollie Tibbetts. And for that, you and you alone will receive the following sentence.” Rivera was sentenced to life without the chance of parole.
Mollie’s legacy goes on. A campaign called Mollie’s Movement encourages people to do random acts of kindness and helps the search for other missing people.
A fund was also started at the University of Iowa to help young patients go for therapy. Teal ribbons still hang in homes and stores, and an annual run is held in her honour.
The murder was often used to fuel political discussion, but Mollie wasn’t just a face on a missing poster. She was an ordinary young woman who simply wanted to live her life and advocate kindness. Tragically, that wasn’t to be.
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