There’s more to Mollie Tibbetts’ story than whether her killer was undocumented

motibbs/Instagram andreagonram/Twitter (Fair Use) Remix by Samantha Grasso

The right has already concerned itself over Mollie Tibbett’s attacker being undocumented—but his status is under dispute.

After weeks of searching, the body believed to belong to 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts, a missing University of Iowa psychology junior, was found. Though the search for Tibbetts took more than a month, Republicans and right-wing trolls have wasted no time pinning her murder on Democrats for not having done more to keep undocumented immigrants, such as Tibbetts’ suspected murderer, out of the country.

The only problem? The documentation status of the man accused of murdering Tibbetts is unclear—according to his lawyer, he’s lived and worked in Iowa legally for seven years. Mitch Mortvedt, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, says Homeland Security Investigations told him the man is undocumented.

According to the Los Angeles, the man who confessed to her murder, 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera, led police to her body on Tuesday after confessing to having kidnapped her in Brooklyn, Iowa. An affidavit attached to the criminal complaint against Rivera says that he had seen her running on July 18. He followed her in his car, then got out of his car and began running after her. Rivera told police that Tibbetts grabbed her phone and told him she was calling the police, which caused him to get angry. At that point, he says he blacked out, and next remembered seeing her earphones on his lap while sitting in the car.

Rivera said that once he woke up, he realized he had put Tibbetts in the trunk of his car. While taking her out, he saw blood on the side of her head. He then left Tibbetts’ body in a cornfield and covered it with corn leaves.

Charges against him were filed in district court in Poweshiek County, and his bail has been set at $1 million. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison without parole.

Tibbetts’ death is being mourned as a tragedy online, with many empathizing with a family whose daughter’s future had been cut too short, and had only been murdered for expressing discomfort that Rivera was running after her. However, in the day since Rivera led authorities to Tibbetts’ body, Republican politicians and pundits and right-wing trolls have begun using Tibbetts’ death to champion their own agenda.

Rivera, having lived in the Poweshiek County area for four to seven years and been previously employed at a company partially owned by a prominent Iowa Republican, has been reported as both documented and undocumented. Because of this reporting of and fixation upon his immigration status, the discovery of Tibbetts’ body has been overshadowed by right-wingers using her death as an example of the consequences for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and live in the U.S.

At a Charleston, West Virginia, rally on Tuesday, President Donald Trump called Tibbetts’ death “a disgrace,” stating Tibbetts was an “incredible, beautiful young woman.” And Vice President Mike Pence has commended law enforcement on Twitter for the apprehension of “an illegal immigrant, who’s now charged with first-degree murder.”

“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,” Trump said at the rally. “Should have 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 it changed but we have to get more Republicans.”

On Wednesday, Rivera’s lawyer Allen Richards asked for a gag order on his client’s case, writing that “sad and sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members,” according to the Des Moines Register. Richards’ gag order arguing against the publicity of the case was denied, though he says his client should only be referred to as a documented resident.

Iowa’s Gov. Kim Reynolds tweeted on Tuesday that the state is “angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community,” and vowed to do “all we can” to bring Tibbetts justice. Iowa Sen. Joni K. Ernst also tweeted that “too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws.”

Meanwhile, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich emailed Axios founder Mike Allen to make sure they cover Tibbetts’ story and help make Tibbetts “a household name by October.” Gingrich hopes the coverage will put Democrats in “deep trouble” and distract from Tuesday’s guilty verdicts against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and Trump’s former longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

And the White House, too, has issued an advertisement about Tibbetts’ death, roping in her death with those of Americans who deaths involved undocumented immigrants. The ad invoked the theme of “permanent separation,” building off the criticism the Trump administration received regarding family separations at the border earlier this summer.

Across Twitter, other right-wing users, politicos and trolls alike, are calling for Democrats and general allies of immigrants to display their outrage and stand up for Tibbetts by standing against undocumented immigrants. Some have blamed Tibbetts’ death on Democrats themselves for not doing more to secure the border from people crossing into the U.S. unauthorized, despite Rivera’s lawyer later disputing his client’s immigration status. It’s a narrative that, while honest about the emotion surrounding Tibbetts’ death, targets all undocumented immigrants indiscriminately while seemingly ignoring violence committed by and against Americans.

https://twitter.com/MrSmithThe2nd/status/1032015959257743360

However, many online, including members of Tibbetts’ family, have spoken out against anti-immigration rhetoric.

Others are refocusing the conversation on what happened to Tibbetts before she was abducted. According to Rahn, it’s unclear why Rivera decided to target Tibbetts.

“I can just tell you it seems that he followed her and seemed to be drawn to her on that particular day and for whatever reason he chose to abduct her,” Rivera previously said.

However, women who have read the articles describing Tibbetts’ death have filled in the blanks between Rivera following Tibbetts, and Tibbetts threatening to call the police: it appears that she didn’t want Rivera following her, at the very least, and was murdered after telling him so. Rivera didn’t go after Tibbett because he’s an immigrant, other commenters have pointed out, but because violence towards women is an acceptable, normalized reaction to rejection.

On Reddit, one of the more popular threads on r/TwoXChromosomes speculates about Tibbett’s death and has received more than 7,800 in upvotes and more than 2,000 comments. The thread is titled “Mollie Tibbetts was murdered because she threatened to call the cops on a man who was catcalling her.”

“I’m so angry, saddened, and frustrated right now. Mollie was just a normal girl living her life and this asshole (that I REFUSE to name) ended it because she didn’t react how he wanted her to,” the original poster wrote. The writer elaborated that while people catcalling is often not taken seriously, it can be “unnerving… [and] terrifying.”

“Her name was Mollie. She was a girl living her life and she didn’t owe you a damn thing, you bastard. Not her time, or her acknowledgment, or even a fucking smile,” the poster concluded.

Police and news outlets have not characterized Tibbett’s death as de facto catcalling or street harassment, though Rivera admitted to pursuing her in his vehicle before he got out and started running alongside her. Many posters have empathized with Tibbetts’ death, recalling moments they were previously accosted or harassed by random men while in public.

“I cannot deal with how many people I’ve seen use the fact that he was an illegal immigrant to push their political agendas and completely ignore the fact that THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN HAPPENING TO WOMEN,” one commenter posted on the thread. “They’re completely mowing over her death and who she was as a person. This story just happens to support their claims. It makes me feel sick.”

Samantha Grasso

Samantha Grasso

Samantha Grasso is a former IRL staff writer for the Daily Dot with a reporting emphasis on immigration. Her work has appeared on Los Angeles Magazine, Death And Taxes, Revelist, Texts From Last Night, Austin Monthly, and she has previously contributed to Texas Monthly.