On July 18, 2018, Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, disappeared while jogging near new Brooklyn, Iowa home. She remained missing with no clues for over a month until police identified a 24-year-old man named Christian Rivera as a suspect. Surveillance footage had found his car following her around on her dog. On August 21, he led the police to her body, and he was charged with murder.
The story of a young, beautiful and bright young woman going missing made national news, but her case became more widely known, and widely politicized, when it was confirmed that her killer had been in the country illegally. The Trump administration and republicans used the murder to argue stricter immigration policies, while Mollie's family denounced their using their child's murder for political purposes.
DISAPPEARANCE AND INVESTIGATION
Mollie was born on May 8, 1998, making her 20 years old at the time of her disappearance. Her parents, Rob and Laura, divorced when she was in the second grade, and she moved to Iowa from her birthplace of San Francisco with her mom and 2 siblings. However, she kept close contact with her father. He had just gotten re-married the month before her disappearance, and she had attended the wedding.
Mollie was living in Brooklyn, Iowa during the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at the University of Iowa. She was studying psychology and excited for her second year of college. She was working at a children's day camp at Grinnell Regional Medical Center at the time of her disappearance.
On July 18, Mollie, who used to run cross country, took off on an evening jog. She was last seen at around 7:30 PM when she left her boyfriend's brother's home for her run. When she didn't show up for work the next day, her family reported her missing. Her last confirmed communication was with her long-term boyfriend shortly before she left for her dog. He told the police he received a Snapchat message from her later in the night of her disappearance where it appeared she was indoors.
The search was on for Mollie over the next few weeks. Multiple states investigated various leads in the case, including multiple unconfirmed sightings in neighboring states. Over 2,300 tips came in, and over 500 interviews were conducted, but to no avail. The police attempted to use her Fitbit to track where she was, but it lead t nothing.
About a month after Mollie vanished, the police notified the public that they were zeroing in on a few specific areas, including her boyfriend's home, a truck stop, a car wash, and 2 farms in the area.
During their investigation, Christian Rivera, 24, became a suspect after a nearby surveillance camera showed him suspiciously driving around the area where Mollie had been jogging. Once they linked the car that was following her to him, he was approached without incident. He confessed to kidnapping and killing her, and dumping her body
On August 21, just over a month after she died, he lead investigators to Mollie's body, which he had dumped in a cornfield. The Iowa State Medical Examiner concluded that her cause of death was "multiple sharp force injuries" and considered it a homicide.
As the case gained national news, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services claimed its systems indicated that he was not in the U.S. legally. He was charged with first-degree murder on August 22, 2018, for which he pleaded not guilty. His trial is set for some time in September of this year.
REACTIONS AND POLITICIZATION
The communities close to Mollie mourned her death and created memorials and tributes to her in various ways. Her younger brother and his football team put her initials on their team jerseys, while runners created and used the hashtag #MilesForMollie to highlight the safety issues women experience while running alone. Her friends created The Mollie Movement, with a mission of simply being kind to one another in Mollie's honor.
At her funeral, her family asked that those mourning her death remember the passion she had, and her love of helping others. They asked them to celebrate the wonderful things in her honor. Her father mentioned the marriage of her 2 friends as one of those wonderful things. The wedding had taken place the day before the funeral, and Mollie was supposed to be the maid of honor.
While her friends and family came to terms with the fact that their beloved daughter, sister, friend, and relative was gone, the political world used her death to focus on immigration policies. Though research shows that people in the United States illegally are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, advocates for stricter immigration policies used the fact that Mollie's killer was in the U.S. illegally as anecdotal evidence for their argument.
Trump made a video statement on August 22 saying: "A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. We need the wall, we need our immigration laws changed, we need our border laws changed." A campaign email sent to his followers blamed democrats' immigration policies for Mollie's death. Even though, as mentioned previously, you are much more likely to be a victim of a crime at the hands of someone born in the U.S. than someone who is here without proper documentation (adjusted, of course, for population sizes.)
Mollie's family issued a statement asking for time and privacy after her body was found, but in addition, they denounced Donald Trump's statements, describing them as "heartless" and "despicable", outraged that he would use his daughter's death for political purposes. In his statement, he said, "The Hispanic community are Iowans. They have the same values as Iowans. As far as I'm concerned, they're Iowans with better food." He further denounced Trump, and all of his followers who "appropriate[d] Mollie's soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist."
Because Christian Rivera didn't kill Mollie because he was an illegal immigrant, or because border safety is too lax, or because of the democrats. He killed her because he is a terrible person. I've written about countless murders on this website, have listened to countless stories of murder on podcasts or TV shows, and the vast majority are committed by native-born Americans.
Just because he is an immigrant doesn't mean that was the problem. Men kill women all the time. Women generally feel unsafe running in the evening, or going anywhere alone, or even living on ground floor apartments. Violence against women is the real problem. His immigration status is a non-issue. While her murder becomes part of the broader story about violence against women in the U.S., it is not really part of a broader story about violence at the hands of undocumented immigrants in this country. To crack down on immigration laws, or to lump all undocumented immigrants into one bucket labeled "dangerous" because of him is unreasonable.
The trial for Christian Rivera is scheduled for September 29th, 2020 at 9:00 AM in Woodbury County, Iowa. (2) No doubt that the trial will bring up the conversations that occurred back in 2018 when she was killed. But we must remember that the real story is that a young, innocent girl with a bright future ahead of her was killed. Her family is still mourning the tragic, brutal loss of their beloved Mollie.
Remembering and honoring Mollie is the most important thing. And hopefully, she will get justice this year.