This undated photo provided by the Iowa Department of Public Safety shows Christian Bahena Rivera. Authorities said on Tuesday that they have charged a man living in the U.S. illegally with murder in the death of Iowa college student, Mollie Tibbetts, who disappeared a month ago while jogging in a rural area. Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Rick Rahn said that Rivera, 24, was charged with murder in the death of Tibbetts. Credit: Iowa Department of Public Safety via AP

Law enforcement officials in Iowa have charged a man with murdering 20-year-old college student Mollie Tibbets, saying he admitted to abducting her as she ran on a country road and eventually led them to the field where her body was buried under corn stalks.

The suspect was identified as 24-year-old Christian Bahena-Rivera, who authorities said was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who had been living in the United States for at least four years. Rivera was charged with first-degree murder, with a potential penalty of life in prison, according to Rick Rahn, a special agent in charge for the sector at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

Tibbetts, who was studying psychology the University of Iowa, had been missing since leaving for a run from her boyfriend’s house in Brooklyn, Iowa, a small town of about 1,500 where she is originally from.

The case unraveled in dramatic fashion on Tuesday as reports emerged in the morning that authorities had found Tibbetts’ body, followed by an afternoon announcement that Bahena-Rivera had been arrested and charged.

Rahn declined to give many details about Tibbetts’ killing, citing the ongoing investigation. He said that Rivera told investigators that he saw her running, approached her and ran along side or behind her, even relaying to authorities that Tibbetts had grabbed her phone and threatened to call the police. He continued to pursue her and then abducted her, Rahn said.

The case is certain to add fuel to the explosive and racially-tinged debate about immigration, as President Donald Trump’s border wall, which he touts as a symbol of security, remains an unfulfilled and unfunded campaign promise.

At a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday night, Trump appeared to reference the case and the arrest of the “illegal alien” from Mexico.

“You saw what happened to that beautiful, incredible young woman. Should have never happened. Illegally in our country,” he said. “The immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting them changed.”

“Heartbroken by the news about Mollie Tibbetts,” Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter. “We commend the swift action by local, state, & federal investigators working in Iowa in apprehending an illegal immigrant, who’s now charged with first-degree murder.”

The broad contours of Tibbetts’ death are reminiscent of the murder of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old white woman whose 2015 death, after she was struck by a bullet in a popular area of San Francisco, has become a cri de coeur for Trump and other conservatives and proponents of harsher immigration laws. An undocumented immigrant, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was later convicted on gun charges related to Steinle’s death. Zarate had already been deported from the United States five times.

Tibbetts disappeared on July 18 after she had gone out to jog. For more than a month, federal, state and local authorities had scoured the rural county for, sifting through electronic data from her Fitbit, cellphone and social media accounts for any clue about what happened to her.

Rahn said that investigators had talked to hundreds of people and received more than 4,000 tips, but the break in the case came within the last two weeks when they found someone with a security camera system while canvassing a neighborhood.

The videos had captured images of Tibbetts running as well as a Black Chevy Malibu that investigators said they traced to Bahena-Rivera, informing a determination that Rivera was one of the last people to see her running, Rahn said. They conducted a lengthy interview with Bahena-Rivera Tuesday after approaching him for the first time, in which he told them about seeing her running and how he pursued her.

“He was very compliant,” Rahn said. “He was willing to talk to us. There was no fight or struggle of any kind.”

After the interview was over, Rivera lead them to her body in a cornfield, Rahn said. Stalks had been placed over the corpse, Rahn said.

Rahn said that officials believed that Rivera was employed but declined to specify how or with whom. The results of an autopsy are still pending, and Rahn did not specify a cause of death. Rivera is currently being held at the Poweshiek County jail, he said.

A representative for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that the agency lodged an immigration detainer on Bahena-Rivera with local authorities after his arrest Tuesday.

Tibbetts was born in San Francisco and moved to Brooklyn with her mother when she was in second grade. She won state speech competitions, was involved in theater and ran cross-country.

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