BROOKLYN, Iowa – Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the Mexican farmworker accused of killing a 20-year-old college student and concealing her body beneath corn stalks, seemed to have built a quiet, productive life in the seven or so years since he slipped across the border and found work in the fields of Iowa.
He tended to dairy cows on a farm owned by a prominent family and returned home each evening to a modest brown trailer along a gravel road outside town.
But Bahena Rivera’s quiet demeanor sometimes stood out. A neighbor said he did not always follow the local practice of acknowledging him when Bahena Rivera drove by in a Chevy Malibu. A woman said he made her uncomfortable with a romantic advance and repeated Facebook messages in the middle of the night.
“He would just stare. He wouldn’t really, like, talk,” said the woman, Brooke Bestell, 20, who had turned Bahena Rivera down when he asked her out on a date. “Something about him was off.”
Over the course of this week, Bahena Rivera, 24, went from a quiet farmworker whose real name was unknown, even to his employer, to a homicide suspect whose arrest inflamed the national immigration debate.
President Donald Trump has cited the first-degree murder charge against Bahena Rivera as proof of the need for tougher border security. Iowa politicians and conservative news outlets have seized on the case as ammunition as November’s election nears. And here in Brooklyn, population 1,400, residents have struggled to understand how the man they saw at the grocery store could be tied to the death of Mollie Tibbetts, a psychology student and summer camp counselor who disappeared last month while out for a jog.
Bahena Rivera, who is jailed on a $5 million cash bond, was one of many Mexicans who have made their way to Iowa’s pastures, where farmers often struggle to find eligible workers to tend their crops and cattle. Bahena Rivera grew up in El Guayabillo, a village of unpaved roads some three hours’ drive from Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and attended the only elementary school in the village of about 400 people.
“A very good person, a simple guy with no vices,” Victor Manuel Nuñez Carbajal, who attended school with Bahena Rivera, said in a Facebook message. Neighbors told the Univision network that his father tended his small corn plot and milked dairy cows in the village.
Bahena Rivera came to the United States at age 17, his lawyer said, with the equivalent of a middle school education. After a few years at another farm, he went to work at Yarrabee Farms outside Brooklyn, which is co-owned by Craig Lang, a former Republican candidate for Iowa agriculture secretary.
“I would say he always did his work on time,” Lang said. “But he wasn’t much for conversation.”
His lawyer, Allan Richards, said Bahena Rivera had been a law-abiding employee since arriving in the United States. “He’s here living the American dream and working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and trying to do his best at his job,” Richards said. He said Bahena Rivera’s family was not yet willing to speak publicly.
Lang said Bahena Rivera had been hired at the farm in August 2014 after presenting a valid Social Security number, which was checked with a federal database, and a state-issued identification card. The new employee was known around town as Cristhian Bahena Rivera, but around the farm by the fraudulent name listed on those documents, a name the authorities did not disclose.
Outside of work, Bahena Rivera started dating a Brooklyn high school student, Iris Monarrez, whom he met in 2013. Around 2014, they had a daughter. And for about a year, they lived together. Bahena Rivera once posted on Facebook that the day he met his girlfriend was “el mejor día de mi vida,” or “the best day of my life.” When she posted a photo of herself in 2015, he wrote in Spanish, “My beautiful cool princess.”
“He was really romantic,” said Aby Felix, a second cousin of Monarrez, who she said had been separated from Bahena Rivera for about two years. “He would bring her flowers.”
Residents said Bahena Rivera was an attentive father who was often seen playing with his daughter in the park.
His arrest has rattled Brooklyn, a small town where most everybody knows everybody else, and where many had assumed someone from outside the community was responsible for Tibbetts’ disappearance July 18.
Tibbetts, a student at the University of Iowa known as a talented writer, had attended high school in Brooklyn and was known for her frequent jogs around her hometown. After weeks of investigating and national news coverage, police found security video that showed a dark-colored Malibu driving back and forth as she ran on the day of her disappearance. The Malibu was later tied to Bahena Rivera, who police said cooperated and led them to her body after being arrested Monday.
A medical examiner said Tibbetts had died in a homicide from “multiple sharp force injuries.” Her funeral is Sunday.