© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Undocumented Immigrant Charged With Murder In Case Of Missing Iowa Student


The murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old college student in Iowa, has shocked her community and become national news. Her accused killer, Cristhian Rivera, was jailed on a $5 million cash-only bond today.


Yesterday he led authorities to what is believed to be her body. The Department of Homeland Security told state law enforcement that Rivera is an undocumented immigrant. His lawyer, though, says Rivera had been working in Iowa lawfully.

CORNISH: Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne has been following this story. She joins us now from Poweshiek County, where she spent the day at the courthouse. And, Kate, what more is known about what happened to Mollie Tibbetts?

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: So Mollie Tibbetts, again, was a 20-year-old college student studying psychology. She was home for the summer and was out on an evening jog when investigators believe that an undocumented immigrant named Cristhian Rivera came upon her and ultimately killed her and left her body in a cornfield. Rivera later brought investigators to that site where he had left her body.

CORNISH: This case has come to be highlighted by President Trump himself. This was at a rally in West Virginia last night.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in very sadly from Mexico, and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman - should've never happened - illegally in our country. We've had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad. The immigration laws are such a disgrace. We're getting them changed, but we have to get more Republicans. We have to get them.


CORNISH: What are you hearing in Iowa? Are people talking about this case in the same context, in the context of immigration law?

PAYNE: People are angry about this country's immigration laws. One person I spoke to - Rusty Clayton (ph) owns the hardware store in town.

RUSTY CLAYTON: I think illegal immigration's rampant throughout the whole country. We have to address that. I think the politicians need to quit fighting and get together and solve the problem. That's - it's not a left or right problem. It's a big problem for the country, and I think they need to address it and fix it, period.

PAYNE: But then reactions are mixed. Others in town say this man's immigration status is beside the point. The aunt of Mollie Tibbetts actually posted on Facebook and said, remember; evil comes in every color. And so folks are mixed about this, but we are seeing strong, angry reactions from Iowa politicians as well.

CORNISH: Can you talk a little more about that - what you're hearing from state politicians? And is that the reason why this case started to draw so much attention?

PAYNE: For some people in this community, that is why. The governor, Kim Reynolds, issued a written statement last night saying that her heart goes out to the family but that she sees Cristhian Rivera as a predator and that the country's what she calls broken immigration system allowed Mollie's death to happen. Iowa's U.S. senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley echoed that statement.

CORNISH: Today's courtroom appearance by Cristhian Rivera was his first. What did you see and hear?

PAYNE: So this was an opportunity for the magistrate to read off Rivera's charges. There were no pleas entered. That will come later. But Rivera didn't issue any statements other than to say that he understood the charges. But Rivera's lawyer, Allen Richards, argued that the media as well as the president and politicians throughout Iowa are trying to try Rivera in the court of public opinion and make sure that he is understood to be guilty before his case moves forward. His lawyer insists that he should be presumed innocent.

CORNISH: Kate Payne of Iowa Public Radio, thanks for your reporting.

PAYNE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.