As a devastated Iowa community mourns Mollie Tibbetts, the beloved college student who vanished on a run more than a month ago only to be found dead on Tuesday, more is being learned about the man accused in her killing.
Cristhian Rivera, 24, was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder in connection with the abduction and death of Tibbetts, according to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
Law enforcement said Rivera was an undocumented immigrant apparently from Mexico who had lived in the area for up to seven years.
But Rivera's attorney, Allen Richards, said in a court document asking for a gag order in the case that his client is in the U.S. legally.
"Sad and sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media, which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members," Richards wrote, according to the Des Moines Register, referencing the president's statement that pointed to Tibbetts' death as an example that "immigration laws are such a disgrace."
"Cristhian deserves the court’s protection as to his characterization before a jury pool," Richards wrote.
A Poweshiek District court judge on Wednesday denied the request for a gag order.
Rivera was employed by Yarabee Farms, owned by prominent Iowa Republican Craig Lang, a former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and an unsuccessful June candidate for state secretary of agriculture. He has publicly advocated for immigration reform.
At a Wednesday evening press conference Dane Lang, who runs the business with his dad, Craig, said Rivera had worked for the farm for four years and was on time, got along well with his colleagues and didn't call out sick.
"This is shocking to us," Dane told reporters. "Nobody saw a difference. This guy stayed around for 35 days" after Mollie was killed, he said. Rivera continued coming to work, where he tended dairy cows, and seemed his usual self, Dane said.
"I'd say hello, he'd do his job, then he'd go home," Dane said of the suspect's demeanor since Tibbetts was reported missing on July 19.
The farm employs about 10 people, some of whom have been on the job for 20 years or more, Dane said. He expressed sorrow at Tibbetts' death, and at points his voice cracked. This is not the time to talk about immigration status, he said.
"Mollie was well-known here. She was well-liked," he said.
The Social Security card and state-issued ID Rivera presented when he was hired have now been determined to belong to someone else. "Our employee was not who he said he was," Dane said. He declined to provide the name Rivera used, citing the ongoing investigation.
He also corrected an earlier statement, saying his family had checked Social Security records, and not E-Verify.
The latter is an online system that allows employers to confirm the eligibility of prospective employees to work in the U.S. It electronically matches information provided by employees against records available to the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement falls under.
Investigators visited Yarrabbee Farms on Monday to speak with employees. Farm officials said they were fully cooperating with the police investigation.
Rivera has no prior criminal history in Iowa, according to The Associated Press.
Police said he confessed earlier this week to kidnapping and killing Tibbetts on July 18, when she was last seen out for a jog.
Surveillance footage showed a dark-colored Chevy Malibu repeatedly driving by Tibbetts as she ran that evening, which investigators said eventually led them to Rivera, whom they first spoke with on Monday.
Rivera allegedly admitted to parking the car and running behind and beside Tibbetts, who he said threatened to call the police when he would not leave her alone.
Police said Rivera told them he “panicked,” became angry and then “blocked his memory,” which he “does when he gets very upset,” according to the arrest warrant issued Tuesday.
Rivera allegedly claimed to have no memory of what happened next, but came to as he was driving and only realized that he had put Tibbetts in his trunk when he noticed a piece of her headphones in his lap.
He told investigators he dragged Tibbetts’ body to a secluded location in a cornfield, laid her on her back and covered her with corn leaves. He guided investigators to her body on Tuesday, authorities said.
Rivera is being held in lieu of $1 million cash bail at the Poweshiek County Jail.
A motive behind the killing was not immediately clear.
“I can’t really speak about the motive, I can just tell you it seemed that he followed her and seemed to be drawn to her on that particular day,” DCI Special Agent in Charge Richard Rahn told reporters. “And for whatever reason, he chose to abduct her.”
Tibbetts' body was found not long after authorities told her family to return to their lives. They released a statement on her death one day after her body was discovered.
“Our hearts are broken," the family said in a statement shared by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. "On behalf of Mollie’s entire family, we thank all of those from around the world who have sent their thoughts and prayers for our girl. We know that many of you will join us as we continue to carry Mollie in our hearts forever.
“At this time, our family asks that we be allowed the time to process our devastating loss and share our grief in private," the statement continued. "Again, thank you for the outpouring of love and support that has been shared in Mollie’s name. We remain forever grateful.”