The State of Iowa says convicted murderer Cristhian Bahena Rivera does not deserve a new trial in the July 2018 killing of college student Mollie Tibbetts, 20. Prosecutors are also refusing to hand additional documents to the defense, which is attempting to link two other inmates to the slaying.
A Thursday hearing sought to address the “limited” issue of a defense motion to compel the production of evidence connected to defense assertions that a jail inmate named Gavin Jones admitted to fellow inmate Arne Maki that he (Jones) and a second man were involved in Tibbetts’ abduction and death. Judge Joel D. Yates said he would issue a written order by the end of the week on whether the state would be forced to hand a broad cache of files over to the defense in connection with that and other theories the defense has developed after Bahena Rivera’s conviction. Judge Yates also contemplated a July 27 hearing to determine whether a new trial was actually necessary based on the new evidence, but the date for that hearing was not set for certain.
Defense attorney Jennifer Frese said Jones and another possible suspect named James Manuel Lowe, 50, could be connected to Tibbetts’ death.
Frese accused prosecutors of providing mere nuggets of information when Maki came forward and connected Jones to the Tibbetts case. Maki approached the authorities the same day Bahena Rivera took the stand and claimed two unknown men wearing masks threatened the lives of his daughter and his daughter’s mother unless he drove them to a location where one of the men killed Tibbetts and then forced him to drive and dispose of her body.
“The information that was presented at the trial and that was conveyed to the defense was essentially that some inmate was running his mouth and that another inmate had said something,” Frese said. “What we found out after trial is that this inmate identified this Gavin Jones. It has since been linked that they were in the same jail at the same time. Further, there’s evidence corroborating this inmate made statements that he and Gavin Jones were close and one of them put money on the other person’s books. I believe Mr. Maki put money on Mr. Jones’ books.”
Frese noted that the financial transaction was noted on jail records.
“We have a reason to believe that Mr. Maki — the information that he is giving is true,” Frese said.
Maki and another witness, Lindsey Voss, came forward on the very same day, Frese noted.
“Lindsey Voss also indicates that the same man — Gavin Jones — that she was his girlfriend and that Gavin Jones admitted to killing Mollie Tibbetts,” Frese told the court.
Voss was in “a volatile relationship” with Jones, Frese said. Voss ultimately sought and received a protective order against Jones for domestic violence. Jones allegedly held a gun to Voss’s head. Police records also place Jones and Voss in a police vehicle together at one point, the defense pointed out.
Frese complained that none of the corroborating information was provided by the state.
“That evidence is exculpatory and it has not been produced,” Frese alleged.
She went on to explain why the defense believes Lowe is somehow connected to the case.
“Through our independent investigation, we have received a search warrant that was authored in 2019 involving James Lowe. James Lowe is alleged to be a sex trafficker that is . . . sex trafficking women out of a home in Mahaska County,” Frese said.
Frese noted that a woman came forward in 2019 and said that she was introduced to Lowe at a Brooklyn, Iowa Casey’s convenience store location. The woman, Frese said, was given gas money and lured to a home.
“She was put in a room, drugged, and, uh, prostituted herself on a nightly basis,” Frese alleged. “So, essentially, she was drugged to a point she was not able to consent or not, and it just went over and over and over again. This woman indicated she was in a room by herself but that she could hear voices of other women, and she could also hear voices of men and Mr. Lowe talking in the morning, saying ‘did you have a good time; was it worth it?'”
“This woman was deemed credible,” Frese said — credible enough for a search warrant to be granted for Lowe’s residence.
The same search warrant said another woman claimed to have been abducted by James Lowe, Frese said. She also said that Lowe was in custody on federal firearms charges.
“He was arrested just two days after Xavior Harrelson was missing,” Frese said.
Harrelson is a missing 11-year-old from the same general area.
Frese said one of the women who pointed the finger at Jones came forward in May 2018. That was “just two months before the Mollie Tibbetts investigation,” Frese noted.
That’s why the defense wants copies of interview documents prepared by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and devices, computers, thumb drives which Frese says were seized and investigated.
“Three people have vanished out of thin air in this small, rural county,” Frese said while suggesting that rotten deeds were afoot in a county of only 18,000 people — and that Lowe, Jones, and Voss were all somehow connected to Harrelson and Tibbetts.
“I think it would be preposterous that the Cristhian Bahena and the Mollie Tibbetts names did not come up in the Xavior Harrelson investigation,” Frese then alleged. “All we are asking is that Mr. Bahena be given a fair shot that through his attorneys we be allowed to look at this information. We are asking that any sex trafficking investigation involving James Lowe, or residents of Poweshiek County or adjoining counties be produced. We are also asking for any pending investigations of James Lowe during the period Mollie Tibbetts went missing and present. And I know — James Lowe is clearly linked to the Xavior Harrelson disappearance. I strongly suspect that he was — that he is a suspect and that he’s believed to have been involved. But at the very least he is a witness.”
Lowe was on the lam when Harrelson disappeared, Frese added. An Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation caught Lowe when he pulled over a car and Lowe ran from the vehicle. The vehicle which contained a sawed-off shotgun, Frese said.
Prosecutors rubbished the defense theory.
“We resist providing anything that they’re asking for,” Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown said in response to the defense theories. “There is no discovery post trial. They wanna go and knock themselves out trying to find out all of this confusing information that’s just been presented to the court? Go right ahead and do it. But there is nothing in the rules, nothing in the case law that compels the state to chase its tail because they’re asking us to do it.”
“This request, your honor, is very broad,” Brown said. “There’s no limit on the scope.”
Prosecutors balked that they’d have to coordinate with a numerous agencies and a mountain of documents and evidence to give the defense what it wanted.
They then trashed the defense theory linking Jones and Lowe to Tibbetts’ death in wholesale fashion.
“No evidence supports it. None. Zero. There’s nothing there!” Brown said. “All you have to do is look at the defendant’s statement that he gave at trial. The only thing that matches is that Mollie Tibbetts was involved and that at least two other guys with ski masks and sweaters and dark pants were the ones that showed up, abducted, and killed her. That’s it. There’s nothing else about a trap house, Mollie’s body being wrapped in plastic, being stashed at a secondary location, that she was tied or bound, there’s no physical evidence that was found that connects any of that. All of that’s laid out in our resistance.”
Brown was referencing court papers filed last night.
He then suggested that the defense might be able to ask the court for subpoenas but emphasized that the state was not required to search for the information on its own.
Prosecutors also said they gave “much more detail” to the defense about Maki’s statements than what Frese claimed.
“We provided them with enough detail that they knew — because Mr. Frese told me in front of witnesses” that what Maki said “was inconsistent with what his client testified to,” Brown noted.
He then slammed the defense for picking a tactic at trial and then trying to walk it back.
“They’ve got buyer’s remorse when it comes to this information,” Brown said of the defense. “We offered to stop the trial to go to you and ask to stop the trial to pursue the information Mr. Maki was providing to us. They declined.”
Defense attorney Chad Frese then accused prosecutors and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation of sitting on information for two years about possible sex trafficking without providing it to him. He then took issue with the state’s characterization of its earlier conversations with him. He said the state failed to provide most of the details or to adequately convey the importance of the information.
Frese then said “ten kids in this area have gone missing — we’ve provided that. There’s something rotten in this area. And they don’t want to help us.”
Frese also referenced a higher authority while knocking the prosecution’s claim that state procedural law barred the defense requests for access to additional documents and details.
“This is a small area. Ten kids are missing,” the defense attorney said. “That’s not coincidental. And we think it’s exculpatory. And Due Process is [in] the Fourteenth Amendment, and that never goes away.”
Prosecutor Brown then trounced the defense for injecting Xavior Harrelson into the Tibbetts case.
“That’s a pending investigation,” Brown said. “The fact that they would put this information in a public document — which we tried to get ahead of — is unconscionable in my mind.”
Brown said he “cannot” give this defense team information about the outstanding Harrelson matter.
“There is no connection between anything with Xavior Harrelson and Mollie Tibbetts,” he exclaimed.
“Wow,” Brown wrapped up. “That’s all I have to say.”
The judge said he’d rule on the evidence the defense sought and would set a future hearing to determine whether Bahena Rivera deserved a new trial.
Watch the hearing below, which was streamed live by the Law&Crime Network:
Read the prosecution’s resistance (objection) to the defense attempts to obtain the new evidence below:
[images via the Law&Crime Network, except as noted.]
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