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Defense expert: Iowa murder suspect’s confession unreliable
(Brian Powers / AP)

A police officer who obtained a confession from a suspect in the disappearance and death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts said Wednesday that she made an honest mistake when she failed to read him his complete legal rights.

Officer Pamela Romero testified that she tried to read Cristhian Bahena Rivera a Miranda warning during the Aug. 20, 2018, interrogation but didn't realize until later that she left one part out, failing to tell him that his statements could be used against him in court. Romero said her failure was a mistake and not an attempt to keep him talking without a lawyer.

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After several more hours of questioning, Rivera led officers to a cornfield where they discovered Tibbetts' body underneath leaves and stalks. Tibbetts had disappeared a month earlier while out for a run in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, sparking a massive search.

After the discovery of the body, Romero said that she read Rivera his rights again and this time they were complete. She said that he provided "substantial information" about how Tibbetts was killed and left in the field at that point.

Romero testified during a daylong hearing on a request by Rivera's lawyers to suppress statements he made during the interrogation and evidence related to the body.

The hearing, which will continue Thursday, will be critical in determining what evidence can be used against Rivera at his murder trial, which is scheduled for February. Judge Joel Yates is hearing testimony, though it was not immediately known when he was expected to rule on the matter.

Rivera's lawyers say investigators swept into Rivera's workplace, coerced him into giving an interview, suggested he didn't need a lawyer, and continued questioning him for 11 hours even after he was falling asleep at times.

Investigators testified that Rivera consented to the interview and was free to leave for the first six hours. At that point, they obtained an immigration detainer to keep him in custody after learning blood that turned out to be Tibbetts' was found in the trunk of his vehicle. Rivera, a Mexican national who had been living illegally in the U.S., had given consent for that vehicle search, they said.

Romero said she kept a card detailing Miranda rights in a backpack that she used to read to suspects, but that she didn't have it with her that night. Romero, then an officer with the Iowa City Police Department, had been asked to question Rivera since she's a native Spanish speaker.

Prosecutors concede that Rivera's statements for about five hours leading to the discovery of Tibbetts' body are likely inadmissible due to the incomplete Miranda warning. But they say the body itself should be admitted as evidence, arguing that it inevitably would have been discovered.

Agent Trent Vileta of the Division of Criminal Investigation, who oversaw the search for Tibbetts, testified that investigators were still adding locations to search for Tibbetts when they developed Rivera as a suspect. Those would have included the area where she was found, he said.

In addition, he said, area farmers were anxious that Tibbetts would be discovered in their fields and were on the lookout. "Nobody wanted to be the one to find her," Vileta said.

Farmers, or searchers using drones and aircraft, would have spotted the fluorescent running shoes still on Tibbetts feet once the field's crops were harvested in the fall, he testified.

Rivera's lawyers tried to cast doubt on that claim, noting that the murder weapon used to stab Tibbetts to death, her cell phone and her FitBit device have not been discovered.

Investigators began to focus on Rivera after a homeowner's surveillance video briefly captured a "dark figure running" that appeared to be Tibbetts, Vileta said. Further examination of the video showed a black Chevy Malibu with unusual markings that appeared to be circling the runner, he said.

Poweshiek County sheriff's deputy Steve Kivi testified that he spotted Rivera driving that vehicle Aug. 16, 2018, and that he had a discussion with him outside his home. Then, Rivera calmly denied any involvement in Tibbetts' disappearance and his demeanor "didn't raise any red flags," Kivi said.

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On Aug. 20, investigators went to Rivera's workplace to interview Rivera and to obtain DNA samples from him and other employees.

Rivera later admitted the Malibu on the video was his and that "he liked the way (Tibbetts) looked so he turned around to follow her," Vileta said. Vileta obtained a search warrant for the vehicle, and crime lab technicians found what they believed to be blood in the trunk.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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