It’s late August 2018, and a young man is leading investigators to the place where he says he has left a body. The group’s fateful journey sees them drive through the countryside of central Iowa, with the man using his phone to retrace the route that he claims to have taken a month before. And if the suspect is telling the truth, the authorities will have the grisly resolution to a mystery that has haunted the state for weeks.
Then the cars pull up alongside a cornfield – one more or less indistinguishable from any in Poweshiek County. And the investigators pile out and urge the man who has led them here to show them the location they need to see. They may have to steel themselves, too, to be ready for what the individual promises that they will find.
So the young man leads the investigators 20 yards or so through the corn, with the group pushing aside the swaying heads of grain as they walk. Then, finally, the man stops by a pile of leaves. And, tragically, the remains of a woman who has clearly died some time ago are seen lying under the vegetation.
Clothes at the scene suggest the identity of the person in the cornfield, and this is later confirmed. The mystery of what happened to her seems to have been solved, with a lucky break having led investigators to the door of her suspected killer. Then the authorities finally lead the alleged murderer away – and into the arms of the justice system.
After her parents had split up during her time at elementary school, Mollie Tibbetts had come with her mother, Laura Calderwood, to Brooklyn, Iowa. There, she had become a popular, upbeat teen, enjoying the choir, drama and public speaking as well as a passion for running. Her ultimate aim in life, however, was to work as a psychologist.
To that end, Mollie was taking a degree at the University of Iowa. Yet her ambitions didn’t end there. She hoped to become a doctor in psychology and to ultimately pen books on the subject, too. And even though Mollie was now home for the summer after completing her freshman year, she wasn’t idle; instead, she was enrolled in further classes while on vacation.
At the same time, Mollie had a job at a day camp attached to a medical center in the nearby city of Grinnell. There she worked with kids, as she had the previous summer. And in 2018 the director of the camp revealed to The Des Moines Register just how great Mollie had been with the children.
Then, on the night of July 18, 2018, Mollie – who was 20 at the time – was round at her boyfriend Dalton Jack’s house. Dalton shared the property with his brother, and Mollie had agreed to look after his dogs while he was away on business. Construction worker Dalton’s job had taken him to Dubuque, IA – some hundred miles or so from Brooklyn.
Mollie’s friends believed that the somewhat reserved Dalton was a good match, too. At the very least, he seemed to appreciate her, as Mollie’s dad, Rob Tibbetts, later suggested. He would recall a Valentine’s Day when his daughter had returned a call late in the evening. And on the phone, Mollie had explained that Dalton had taken her to Iowa City for dinner. Rob told The Des Moines Register that he remembered saying on that occasion, “‘You’re kidding? Dalton drove all that way and took you to dinner?’”
Meanwhile, in the early evening of July 18, Mollie had decided to go out for a jog. She liked running around the city, and this time she dressed herself in a pair of dark shorts, a pink shirt and suitable shoes in which to do so. Then she was off into the still-light Brooklyn streets.
And Devin Riley would later recall to ABC News that he’d previously witnessed Mollie on her runs. He said, “I’ve seen her probably three to four times per week. She’d kind of jog down the street and towards the hill. I thought nothing of it until I heard somebody was missing – and it really hit me that I hadn’t seen that runner since then.”
Then, the following day, Dalton sent Mollie a text to wish her a good morning. Strangely, though, no reply came from his girlfriend. And, worryingly, workers at the Grinnell day camp went on to contact the young man to tell him that Mollie hadn’t shown for work. But Dalton had no idea about the student’s whereabouts, and this in turn led him to get in touch with her family.
Somewhat alarmingly, though, Mollie’s family didn’t have a clue where she could be. And as Dalton’s brother Blake would later tell Fox News, there was no sign of a fight at his home, either. On top of that, Mollie’s phone and Fitbit were both missing, leading to suspicions that she had vanished during her run. As a result, then, her relatives phoned the police.
And for a few days, people volunteered to search for Mollie, who still hadn’t turned up. Then on July 24, the FBI and investigators from the state commandeered the hunt, asking members of the public to stop looking for the student as they began a systematic investigation of her disappearance. After all, there were other ways in which locals could help.
Awareness then became the key, as family and friends worked to spread word of Mollie’s disappearance. Flyers went nationwide, T-shirts and posters sported her face and magnets and badges appeared everywhere. At one point, a group even went to the Iowa State Fair to hand out material that urged people to share any information they had on the mystery.
On top of that effort, Crime Stoppers of Central Iowa started to gather a reward. And it didn’t take long for the money raised to approach $400,000 – the biggest sum that the organization had ever brought in. The investigators also set up a website that gave details of the case and asked for tips.
And in an attempt to assist the search, Inside Edition also featured a video that had been taken the day before Mollie had disappeared. In the clip, the likeable youngster is giving a motivational speech and having fun with the camera. But no amount of publicity seemed to be helping the authorities find out what had happened to the student.
In the meantime, a 12-strong group of FBI and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents had been searching Iowa properties. One of these locales was a hog farm belonging to Wayne Cheney, who had a previous record for stalking – something that made law enforcement keen to talk to him. But while investigators also held the man’s phone for a short while, ultimately nothing came of the potential lead.
In addition, the police had been contacted by a citizen who was concerned about a man photographing women joggers. The police chief of Pella, Robert Bokinsky, told WHOTV, “As covertly as he possibly could, [the individual] took photos of [the women] unbeknownst to them. It seemed to be very creepy.” Even so, the snapper, who eventually turned himself in, didn’t seem to have broken any laws.
Then, at a press conference on July 31, 2018, investigators confirmed that they still had little idea what may have become of Mollie. Nevertheless, they did say that her disappearance did not seem “consistent with her past.” Even more ominously, the young woman’s father told the media the following day that she hadn’t been answering messages on her phone.
Rob had faith, however, that Mollie was still alive, and he told Fox News that well-wishes and prayers from people all over the planet had helped sustain him. The dad added, “There’s sort of a collective force in the country right now. There’s a will to bring Mollie back, and I subscribe to that. I think there’s real power in the ability to pull Mollie back from wherever she is.”
And Rob pleaded with people to approach the authorities with information about Mollie. He told Fox News, “The bottom line is [that] somebody knows something.” He believed, too, that in a small town like Brooklyn “you can’t do anything… without someone seeing it.” Then, finally, the authorities got a tip that seemed to be some help.
It turned out that an individual had seen a red shirt while cutting a lawn at a location that had already been searched. When investigators went through ditches with a fine-tooth comb, however, they yet again came up empty-handed. Law enforcement even talked once more with pig farmer Cheney, but he said in turn that he hadn’t known Mollie at all and was practically a stranger to Brooklyn.
Yet if Wayne had been a suspect at any point, the authorities were not going to let anyone know, as they had decided to keep the investigation close to their chest. Indeed, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation investigative operations director Kevin Winker told the press that there was nothing to share. He said, “I’m not in a position right now to say [that] we have suspects, we don’t have suspects, persons of interest or anything else.”
Then, on August 5, there was a traumatic discovery. Police found remains about an hour to the southeast of Brooklyn, and they seemed to have once belonged to a woman of about Mollie’s age. However, the cadaver that had turned up in Lee County was that of another individual, and so the investigation – by now chasing tips in their hundreds – continued.
Nevertheless, while the outlook for Mollie’s safe return may have seemed bleak, her father apparently stayed optimistic. Rob told Fox News, “It’s totally speculation on my part, but I think Mollie is with someone [who] she knows [and] that is in over their head. There was some kind of misunderstanding about the nature of their relationship, and at this point they don’t know how to get out from under this.”
Meanwhile, the investigation had honed in on certain places in and close to Brooklyn, and on August 14 the authorities posted a map online that highlighted five spots on which they were now focused. At the same time, they also appealed for fresh witnesses. Little did law enforcement know, though, that the case would soon break wide open – and the whereabouts of Mollie would be revealed.
Soon after Mollie’s disappearance, you see, investigators had found video that captured images of her as she jogged through the east of Brooklyn. But there was also something else seen in the footage: a dark car driving about in the same area. And as the agents decided that the driver of the Chevy Malibu was behaving suspiciously, they looked into who owned the vehicle. This turned out to be Cristhian Bahena Rivera – and it’s claimed that he nurtured a shocking secret.
Then, after being interrogated, Cristhian led the investigators out into the countryside. And there, in the early morning of August 21, the group made the discovery that answered the question of what had happened to Mollie. Her remains were the ones lying in the cornfield, and an autopsy would later confirm that something sharp had been used to kill her.
The investigators went on to allege that Cristhian had confessed to Mollie’s murder and had consequently been able to take them straight to her remains. Even so, a dispute over the suspect’s rights left the validity of any confession in the balance. And Cristhian ultimately lodged a not guilty plea in response to a charge of first-degree murder. If convicted of the felony, he would be behind bars for the rest of his life.
For his part, Cristhian had never previously been sentenced for committing a crime in the U.S. Having come to the country unlawfully when young, he’d lived quietly in Iowa, using a false I.D. to get work on a nearby dairy farm. Cristhian also had a child of his own, and locals would often see him having fun with her in Brooklyn’s park.
Yet Cristhian had allegedly told investigators that he’d followed Mollie in his car after spotting her running. At some point, he’d then reportedly stopped the vehicle and started jogging, too. Alarmed, Mollie had apparently threatened to call the cops on him if he didn’t keep away from her. After that, it’s claimed, Cristhian said that his mind had gone blank.
The next thing Rivera knew, he told the authorities, was that he was out in the countryside and had come to the realization that there was a body in the trunk of his Malibu. Then, when he pulled the woman from the car, he spotted blood coming from her head.
Naturally, the discovery of Mollie’s remains proved distressing for her family, who spoke of their ordeal in a public statement. The message read, “Our hearts are broken. 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.”
The statement continued, “At this time, our family asks that we be allowed the time to process our devastating loss and share our grief in private. Again, thank you for the outpouring of love and support that has been shared in Mollie’s name. We remain forever grateful.” Then, on August 26, 2018, Mollie’s family finally laid the young woman to rest.
And at Mollie’s funeral, Rob gave a stirring eulogy in which he called on everyone to move on. He said, “Today, we need to turn the page. We’re at the end of a long ordeal.” He also remembered Mollie with fond words, adding, “But we need to turn toward life – Mollie’s life – because Mollie’s nobody’s victim. Mollie’s my hero.”
As the city of Brooklyn struggled to come to terms with the tragedy of Mollie’s end, her former high school’s football team chose to pay her tribute. The jerseys of the players at Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom High School each sported a pair of wings in teal, emblazoned with her initials, and the team would wear these garments for the rest of the season.
And Mollie’s mom, Laura, also honored her daughter in her own way by asking an undocumented immigrant to move into her home. That way, he could finish his studies at the local school. By way of explanation for this gesture, Laura told ABC News that she wanted to “pay forward” the kindness her family had received. At the same time, she would raise money in Mollie’s name for the local opera house.
Also in tribute to the late student, men and women runners adopted the hashtag #MilesForMollie. They promised to run in her memory and work for a world where women could enjoy safety while jogging. As Tericia Eller wrote on Twitter in August 2018, “All Mollie Tibbetts wanted to do was go for a run. Since she was not able to finish, I ran for her yesterday and today.”
And for what would have been Mollie’s 21st birthday, Brooklyn citizens remembered her with thousands of “kindness cards” that feature some of her words. The quote from Mollie says, “Everybody has their own talent, whether it’s a sport you are good at, or if you are good at dance, or if you’re a great writer. Even if you’re just a good person – that’s one of the best things you can be good at.”