Politicians used Mollie Tibbetts' death to rail against illegal immigration. Mollie's mom chose a different path.
BROOKLYN, Iowa - The letters began immediately. Dozens at first, then hundreds, each day bringing more: from a Texas man telling her this was why we needed to build the wall. From a New York television producer asking for an interview. From an elderly woman despairing "this divided America in which we now live." Nearly every day since her daughter's body was found, she had opened the mailbox, then sat and read them, because that was her routine, that was how she tried to make sense of something so senseless. But now the mailbox was empty for the first time, and she had a new routine.
Laura Calderwood, whose daughter, Mollie Tibbetts, 20, was allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant and left to rot in a cornfield this past summer, closed the mailbox, walked up the steps to her house and turned on the stove. It was getting on toward 6, and she needed to get dinner going. The boys would be hungry.
There were two inside the house now. One was her son, Mollie's younger brother, a high school senior named Scott. And the other was his friend, a courteous teenager named Ulises Felix. He was the child of Mexican immigrants. For years, his parents had lived and worked beside the man accused of killing her daughter at the same dairy farm on the other side of town, which they fled after his arrest, leaving behind not only Brooklyn, where they'd been for nearly a decade, but also Ulises, their 17-year-old son. He'd wanted to finish high school in the only town he'd ever known, and soon, remarkably, he had a new home - the home of Mollie Tibbetts - where Laura had promised to look after him in his parents' absence.
She flipped on the television.
The news that day was what the news was every day in a country where the central political clash no longer revolved around a choice between candidates, or a question of big government vs. small, but rather an elemental battle over who gets to be an American. Should any immigrant - regardless of race, religion, nationality or circumstance - have that chance? Or should it be reserved for the few who might more quickly assimilate into the American majority?
Today, on the news, President Donald Trump was again making clear where he stood. Birthright citizenship was "ridiculous." The caravan of Central American migrants marching through Mexico toward the United States was an "invasion." In their numbers were "many gang members."
And today, Laura was standing at a countertop cluttered with the letters from strangers who found her address online, in a kitchen heaped with hundreds more, dropping shredded rotisserie chicken and noodles into a pot of boiling water, when the front door opened.
"Uli?" she called.
"Yeah?" he replied, coming into the kitchen, hair dyed blond and wearing white sneakers.
"Are you hungry now?" Laura asked. "I've got homemade chicken soup and some garlic bread."
She brought him a bowl of soup, and he took it, and they stood there for a moment.
"There's some more if you want," she said.
"Thank you," he said, eyes going from the dinner table to his nearby bedroom, then back to the dinner table. He turned to walk with the bowl to his room, where he would eat alone on his bed, but Laura stopped him. Scott was downstairs. She was about to eat alone, too.
"Eat out here, if you want, Uli," she offered, so he came back. They both sat at the table, as opinions of the caravan and immigration seesawed on the television.
". . . we simply cannot tolerate the continued invasion of this country . . . " a voice on the news program said.
They discussed his excitement about playing basketball that season, and little else, two people from two different Americas - one an immigrant, the other a native - whose lives were upended by the same moment of violence and then plunged into the center of another divisive national debate about immigration.
". . . sending close to 5,000 troops to the border . . ."
Two people who were, each in their own way, mourning the loss of family members, with little in common beyond raw need. Two people now trying to translate this unspoken need into something familial, an effort increasingly complicated by their separate connections to the alleged killer, Cristhian Bahena Rivera.
Ulises stood. He took his empty bowl to the sink. He washed it, put it away quietly, then returned to his room. He closed the door behind him. At the table, Laura finished her meal in silence.
The stories almost always begin the same way. A son or daughter is dead, and an undocumented immigrant is blamed. Aggrieved and adrift, the parents search for meaning in it all, some finding what they can in obsession and hatred. "In my life we're going to find the trash who killed my kid," said Scott Root of Council Bluffs, Iowa, whose daughter, Sarah Root, 21, was killed in 2016, allegedly by an undocumented drunk driver who was released after partially paying bail, then disappeared. Others find meaning in political transformation. "I became a Republican," said Sabine Durden of Mineral Springs, Ark., whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant in a traffic collision. And still others in activism: "My story needed to get out," said Laura Wilkerson of Pearland, Texas, whose son, Josh Wilkerson, 18, was beaten to death in 2010 by an undocumented immigant.
Then there is Laura Calderwood. Fifty-five, with curly blond hair and a halting gait, she is a lifelong liberal who didn't abandon her politics. She feels anger like the others, but not toward an entire group of people. She's not afraid of the demographic change remaking the country. But she does fear the deepening polarization. So she never goes to political rallies - never speaks publicly - because she believes that would just inflame things. Instead, she tries to live every day, including this one, just as she did before it all happened.
By late afternoon, Laura had finished up her shift at the grocery store, where she works in the catering department, and gotten into her white SUV. She drove through nearby Grinnell, pulling up to the public library, as always, seeking a sense of calm in its quiet. She went in and sat near the magazines, one of which she had been reading the afternoon of July 19, when her phone rang.
It was her son Scott. He was asking, "Did you know Mollie didn't come into work today?" Laura quickly thought back to the night before. Mollie, who'd been dogsitting at her boyfriend's house, was supposed to have come home for dinner but hadn't. That wasn't unlike Mollie, sometimes scattered, always losing something. But for her to miss work? Laura quickly reported her missing. The following weeks blurred: search missions, media reports, false ransom demands, death threats, misreported sightings, private fears. On and on it went, until Aug. 21, when police announced that a body was found, and those fears were confirmed, and Laura began a new life, this one saddled by public expectations.
"How are you?" one gray-haired woman now asked Laura as she came out of the library bathroom. "I hope you're doing better."
Laura smiled uncomfortably, trying to be kind, but privately hoping to end yet another conversation with someone well-meaning. What did they want from her? The truth? Did they want to know that she still sat on Mollie's bed every day, looking at the books messily shelved, the walls covered with photos? Did they want to know that she still hadn't removed Mollie's death certificate from her car, because where would she even put such a thing?
Laura said, "I am," thanked the woman and left the library.
The landscape on the drive home was a rolling splash of dull browns, marked by election signs, including one for Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. She had taught Laura everything she needed to know about politics.
The day it was broadcast that Mollie was found, Reynolds called and wept with her on the phone. Laura had been moved by her tenderness - and still was - but then, on that same day, Reynolds issued a public statement. Gone was the empathetic woman from the phone call and instead was someone now using the words "predator" and "broken immigration system." The next statement was even harsher, this one from Trump. He'd never called Laura, knew little about her daughter, but had no problem, Laura thought, using Mollie's death to try to end immigration policies he now referred to as "pathetic."
Laura hated the sound of Mollie's name coming from his mouth. His words were the opposite of who Mollie was, advancing a "cause she vehemently opposed," as her father, Rob Tibbetts, who's separated from Laura, wrote in a newspaper column soon after her funeral. She'd wanted to welcome all immigrants who needed help. So when Scott soon came to Laura with an unusual request - could they take Ulises in? - she asked what had happened. The nation, it seemed, was directing its anger about Mollie's death toward Yarrabee Farms, where her alleged killer had worked, deluging it with vitriolic messages. The immigrant families who worked there were fleeing.
Laura thought of Mollie. She would argue that the farmworkers didn't deserve this, that they were only trying to earn a living. What would she say about Ulises? Bring him in? Laura thought that his father may be undocumented and worried about attracting unwanted attention, but again, what would Mollie say?
Laura arrived home, weeks later now, that decision long since made, Ulises living in the spare bedroom. She had hoped to find a full house, but soon she was alone, on a night she had been dreading.
The doorbell rang.
"Oh my goodness, look at you guys," she said, seeing young children in costumes on her doorstep. She handed out candy.
"Happy Halloween!" she then told the next group.
She closed the door, an emptiness rising inside her. Everywhere in the house, there was Mollie - here holding a microphone in a hallway picture, there jogging in a newspaper clipping on the fridge - but in her mind, she couldn't see her. What did Mollie wear for Halloween? Could she already be slipping away? Laura pulled down one photo album, and then another, and then she was crying, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't remember.
The doorbell rang again.
"I thought it was over," she sighed, going to the door. She opened it.
Three young children stood outside. All were dark-haired, speaking Spanish.
"Hi!" Laura said cheerfully, wanting to appear normal for them, handing out candy. "How are you?"
Three miles away, down a straight gravel road, where city gives way to fields, there is a line of four single-wide trailers outside a dairy farm, one of which had once been the only home Ulises had ever known. The beige carpeting where his young relatives played. The wood-paneled walls where his mother hung paintings of fruit. The small kitchen where, on Thanksgiving in 2015, the man who would take it all away once posed for a photograph, wearing a red button-down.
Everyone knew Cristhian Bahena Rivera. The 24-year-old immigrant lived in a nearby trailer and helped tend the farm's 650 cows. Bahena Rivera came to the farm all but alone, his family 2,150 miles away in El Guayabillo, Mexico. Knowing what that meant, Ulises's parents, who are from Durango, Mexico, watched after him as best they could. Ulises's mother tried to be a maternal presence, preparing food for him and inviting him over. His father helped him become a good farmhand. Eventually, Bahena Rivera got into a relationship with Ulises's cousin Iris Monarrez and they had a daughter together before separating.
So on Aug. 20, when dozens of investigators swept through the farm, interviewed workers and then took Bahena Rivera in for further questioning, few suspected him of anything. It couldn't have been him. Not Bahena Rivera, who was always joking around and had trained Ulises when he worked on the farm. Not the guy who had called Ulises's cousin "mi princesa hermosa" - my beautiful princess - on Facebook. Not the employee who'd acted perfectly ordinary during those dramatic weeks, as Brooklyn tore itself apart looking for Mollie, and Ulises put up missing-person posters, and authorities investigated about 4,000 leads.
The next day was the news conference. Mollie's body had been found. Ulises and other seniors on the football team wanted to support Scott, their quarterback, so they drove to Montezuma, the county seat, where an investigator wasted no time getting to it:
"Cristhian Bahena Rivera . . . has been charged with murder."
Ulises felt his body go numb.
"He is an illegal alien."
His teammates were looking at him, asking what was wrong, why he was crying.
"Found in a cornfield, and there were cornstalks placed over the top of her."
Ulises glanced over at Mollie's family, huddled together nearby. Scott was looking down. His baseball cap was tipped low. Laura appeared uncertain on her feet, people propping her up on either side. Did they know? Did they have any idea that his family knew - and knew intimately - the man who allegedly killed Mollie? As he looked at them, a sense of shame rose in him, as though he was complicit somehow. If only he'd been more curious, asked more questions. Maybe he could have picked up on something, even stopped it all. Mollie would still be here. And he wouldn't be going back to the farm, where his family waited in their trailer, and telling them news that none of them had expected.
"No," his mother said, distraught. "It's not true."
He then summarized what police had said:
On the evening of July 18, surveillance footage near Boundary and Middle streets had shown Mollie jogging. Into the frame came a dark Chevy Malibu linked to Bahena Rivera. He got out and ran after her. Mollie, wearing headphones and clutching her Phone, said she was going to call the cops, and he got angry. Bahena Rivera couldn't remember what happened next. His memory was "blocked," he told police, explaining that happened when he became very upset. The next thing he recalled, he said, was driving. He noticed an earpiece from headphones in his lap. That was when he remembered: Mollie was in his trunk. He drove deep into the country and pulled out her body. He dragged it 20 yards into a cornfield. He left it faceup and then drove away, returning one month later with investigators to show them where it was.
Not long after the news conference, the news trucks pulled up to the farm. Then came the racist telephone calls, some of which were routed to Ulises's trailer, whose number was listed. Next the hate mail. And finally a robo-call went out from a white supremacist group using a Brooklyn number. "We don't have to kill them all," it said. "But we do have to deport them all."
Ulises begged his family to stay. Everything would calm down. The hate was coming from out-there America, not Brooklyn. Then someone said something racist to his mother at a gas station, and a Latina high school student reported hearing bigoted comments by classmates, and his mother said they had to move. It wasn't safe here anymore. They began packing, telling Ulises they understood if he chose to stay.
"I got home to a basically empty house except for my room. My parents are moving up to Illinois," Ulises messaged to Scott one night soon after. " . . . I don't know what's gonna happen."
"Live here," Scott quickly wrote back. "We got an extra room."
And that's what he did, moving all that he owned - his video games and some clothing - into the bedroom that Laura had cleared of the gifts, flowers and letters flooding the house. Every night, in that room, he called his parents, now living with relatives hours away. And outside it, he tried to get used to a new culture in a house where no one ate the food he did, meals weren't usually shared together and details of his family's close relationship with the man who allegedly killed Mollie started to trickle out.
Laura had refused to attend the arraignment. She hadn't wanted to be anywhere near that man, whom a federal investigator had described to her as the "most demonic person" he'd ever met. But then it was a little later, and the house was silent and she felt restless. She took out her computer. She had to know. She had to look at his face, if only just once. A recorded live stream of the arraignment came up. Ignoring the comments scrolling past - "Another American killed by an illegal"; "Illegal aliens must be stopped!" - she stared at the screen, confused. This hadn't been what she expected. He looked so thin, so young.
The camera swiveled to a young child with black hair and earrings. Laura had heard Bahena Rivera had a daughter. This must have been her. She was held by a young woman who looked distraught. Laura closed the laptop. She wondered who this woman was. Then Ulises came to live with them. The boy, who was nothing but respectful and sweet, always asking permission to go anywhere, told her he was related to the woman. The mother of Bahena Rivera's child was his cousin.
"He was a pretty funny dude . . . always messing around," Ulises casually said of Bahena Rivera one night, and Laura just listened, looking down as she cooked.
"My mom took care of him for a while, and she fed him every day," he said one evening. "He was so busy sending money back to his parents, trying to help them build a house."
"Oh, wow, I didn't know that," Laura said quietly. "Did he come here by himself, Uli?"
"The only family I know that he had here was his uncle and aunt."
"I mean, that's . . . ," she began, searching for the right thing to say. "I'm glad he had someone as a mother figure to look after him," she ultimately got out, referencing Ulises's mother, struggling to show compassion. "If he didn't have any family here to speak of."
She then left the room, saying, "I'm going outside."
The night was cold and quiet. She lit a cigarette, breathed in. Was what Ulises said true? But how could it be? She never wanted to think - or anyone else to think - that Bahena Rivera was somehow decent. She wanted to picture him only as that federal agent did: without conscience. Deport him? Execute him? Too easy. He needed to spend the rest of his life in prison, deprived of seeing his daughter, just as she'd been deprived of seeing hers. Justice to her would be waking up every day knowing that he was in pain. And now to hear something redeeming about him? It made her feel uncomfortable and unmoored.
She called Sophia Bucheli, her friend from Oakland, Calif., where Laura once lived, before leaving the father of her three children. The women had spoken almost every day since Mollie was found, when Sophia, whose parents are Ecuadoran immigrants, told her, "Something horrific has just happened to you, and I do not blame you if your ideals completely change." But when Laura responded that they hadn't and that, in fact, she was going to invite Ulises from the dairy farm to live with her, Sophia kept it a secret. She worried that Laura would get hurt. Or used. Or become a target for the anti-immigration hard-liners, who she feared were prevalent in Iowa, a state she saw for the first time the next day on a trip to visit Laura.
They drove to Iowa City, where Mollie had attended the University of Iowa, and tried to ignore it all for the day - drinking coffee, talking about nothing, walking among the campus buildings - until they were heading back to Brooklyn, speaking in low voices. Sophia had so many questions, questions she'd never dared ask, but now, in the quiet of the car, she thought she might.
"In all of our conversations, I've never asked you what happened," said Sophia, whose graying hair looked black in the low light.
"What do you mean what happened?" Laura said.
"How did she die?"
"You don't know?"
"No, I don't know."
"Multiple stab wounds."
"Oh my God."
"In the chest. And I also know there was one in the skull," Laura said. ". . . Mollie's death was horrific."
Sophia wanted to believe she could be like Laura. She hoped she would have it within her to suppress the hatred and anger she feared would consume her, would consume anyone, but here Laura was. She somehow hadn't let that happen. She'd instead brought this child of immigrants into her house - a child whose ties to Bahena Rivera seemed endless - and how had she managed to handle it? How did she reconcile the differences between what the evidence said of Bahena Rivera and what Ulises said? What did she gain from caring for Ulises, except for a constant reminder that Mollie's alleged killer wasn't, perhaps, all bad? How could she stomach the incongruity?
"Take this exit," Laura said. "It gets us off the interstate."
They turned onto a barren county road, streaking past the last gas station for miles.
"Highway 21," Laura said. "They found her body around here."
Sophia didn't know what to say to that, so she didn't say anything at all.
"In a cornfield," Laura said, repeating it for what seemed like the millionth time, still trying to believe it herself.
They passed the spot and continued on to Laura's house, where Uli was waiting, with nothing but blackness outside the windows.
"Are you working today?" Ulises texted Laura one morning.
Odd, she thought. He rarely texted her this early.
"Yes, what's up?" she replied. Did he need her?
"That's fine," he said. "Don't worry about it then."
Hours went by before she heard the news. Ulises had been injured at basketball practice that morning and had gone to the hospital. His ankle might be broken. He might miss most, if not all, of the basketball season. Laura picked up the phone again, something maternal kicking in, worrying now not only about his ankle, but also about his disappointment. Basketball - a sport he talked about constantly and loved above all others - had been part of the reason he'd stayed in Brooklyn, and now his chance of playing was coming apart. She typed out a message. What did he need? Why hadn't he told her when it happened?
"I was going to, but I didn't wanna worry you with you being at work," he wrote.
"You must want something for dinner."
"Could I have some Mexican? A burrito. Steak."
Ulises - and how he was doing - was just about all she thought about for the rest of the day, until it was finally time to leave work. She went to a nearby Mexican restaurant, bought him the dinner he had requested and headed home, feeling good, feeling useful, filled with purpose. She wanted to be the one to care for him. She needed to be the one to care for him. She'd had three children for a reason, and here was a chance now, in a small way, perhaps, to try to partly fill the void.
She came back to a house full of people - her sister and both her sons were there - but did little in the way of greeting them. Instead, she hustled to the counter and opened the oven. She put Ulises's dinner inside to warm it up, waving off Sophia's offer to help. Minutes later, she took out the meal, put it on a plate and carried it to Ulises's room. The door was closed. "Can I come in?" she asked.
He was lying on his bed, a video-game controller in his hands, a big bag of ice on his left ankle. Nearby were crutches and pain relievers and a boot.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
She came over, knelt and gently patted his leg, touching the bag of ice. "Okay, good," she said to herself, placing the food beside him.
"Thank you," he said quietly, looking up at a woman whom he once hadn't known all that well, but whom he'd come to trust so much that she'd been one of the first people he texted when he got hurt, even before his mother.
Laura quietly closed the door as she left, and it was still closed the next morning, when she woke early. She made breakfast for everyone and then checked in with Ulises's doctors - the X-rays showed that it was only an avulsion fracture, offering hope that he'd be back on the court that season - and made a follow-up appointment for him. She put down the phone and looked around the kitchen. It was still covered with all of those letters, telling the familiar story of a fracturing country. There had been enough of that, she had come to think, beginning to gather them up.
There were two boys inside the house now. She had to think of both. They didn't need to see all of this every day.
She put the letters into a box, took them into her study and closed the door behind her.