DAVENPORT, Iowa — A senior high picture of Mollie Tibbetts, the 20-year-old college student slain while jogging in her Iowa hometown three years ago, remains pinned to the bulletin board of Angie Gritsch, the former youth minister at Tibbetts’ parish.
“I usually replace the senior pictures each year, but hers is a permanent one,” said Gritsch, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Brooklyn, Iowa.
Thoughts of Tibbetts have been on many people’s mind in Iowa and across the country as the man accused of taking her life, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, stood trial in Davenport. A Scott County jury convicted the 26-year-old farmworker in the country illegally of first-degree murder May 28, following the two-week trial, moved to Davenport — 103 miles from Brooklyn.
Bahena Rivera will be sentenced July 15 in Poweshiek County District Court in Montezuma, Iowa, the county where Tibbetts lived and died. Her disappearance led to a monthlong search that drew national attention and hundreds of volunteers.
Prosecutors said Bahena Rivera, who arrived in this country 10 years ago, followed Tibbetts in his car as she jogged, approached her because he found her attractive and stabbed her to death when she resisted him. He claimed two other men were responsible for her death.
Gritsch said she felt a sigh of relief, mingled with sadness as she watched the announcement of the verdict on her computer at her workplace in Grinnell, Iowa. “There’s closure for the family and the community, but the fact is Mollie is still gone.”
Gritsch said Tibbetts’ mother, Laura Calderwood, was among relatives who watched the trial from a conference room in the courthouse.
Not present was Judy Calderwood, Tibbetts’ grandmother, who was very close to her granddaughter. The two attended Mass together at St. Patrick Church. Judy died a year ago and never got over the death of her granddaughter, Gritsch told The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.
The first year after Tibbetts’ death, on her birthday in May, members of the parish youth group decorated utility poles and street signs in Brooklyn with teal ribbons, which was the young woman’s favorite color. They also decorated the railings outside the church with teal ribbons.
The ribbon decorating became an annual tradition. This year, before the trial other members of the community decorated the town with teal ribbons.
Tibbetts, who wanted to become a child psychologist, was a nurturer who loved taking care of other people, Gritsch said. After the verdict, a foreign exchange student and friend of Tibbetts’ sent an electronic message to Gritsch. “Mollie is still taking care of us all. That’s Mollie. She always took care of everyone else before herself.”
Jodie Brady got to know Tibbetts well because her oldest son, Dillon, was a classmate of hers and participated in speech and cross-country with her. Brady also taught religious education to Dillon and Mollie’s class, from second through fourth grade and then from eighth to 12th grade.
“Mollie was always thinking about others. She always put others first. She liked to take care of people and to make sure everyone was included,” Brady said. She watched the announcement of the verdict on a computer screen with several other co-workers at BGM High School, Tibbetts’ alma mater. “We gave each other high fives and then we just cried. Four of us had kids in Mollie’s class.”
Thoughts of Tibbetts come to mind daily for Brady. “I try to remind myself to do something kind. You’re having a bad day and you think, ‘What would Mollie do?’ I think of that smile. She had the best smile.”
Brady said she will “always be thankful God blessed us with one of the most beautiful spirits he created, even if it was for a short time.”
Arland-Fye is editor of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.