"We are gonna find Mollie through a combination of tips but also with her digital footprint," Rob Tibbetts says of the missing University of Iowa student

By Chris Harris
August 07, 2018 11:10 AM

In the span of approximately an hour on Sunday afternoon, Rob Tibbetts experienced a tangle of emotions after learning that a body had been found that matched the description of his missing daughter, Mollie Tibbetts.

Rob learned of the discovery of the dead young woman while he was at an Iowa Cubs game, passing out fliers about Mollie’s disappearance.

For much of that hour, he says, he wrestled with the possibility that his family’s weeks-long search had at last come to an end — even with a resolution none of them wanted. Then he learned the truth: The woman who died was named Sadie Alvarado, of Muscatine, Iowa. Like Mollie, Alvarado was 20 years old.

Authorities reportedly believe Alvarado died in an accident. Speaking to local TV station KWSQ, her mother said she was “my best friend” — “a very smart, funny and beautiful young lady” who would have turned 21 next month.

“We had assumed that was Mollie,” Rob tells PEOPLE of the lapse between Alvarado’s body being found and being identified this weekend. “Then when they told us it wasn’t her, all we could think of was this other family, going through this horrible tragedy of their own, and we stopped answering our phones.”

Rob says his family avoided commenting to reporters about Alvarado’s death because they did not want their own still-unsolved case to overshadow hers — “to overstep their grief and their tragedy.”

“Our hearts go out to that family,” he says. “That’s a horrible situation for any family to go through. … To try to equate their pain with ours seemed completely inappropriate.”

Mollie Tibbetts
Mollie Tibbetts
Poweshiek County Sheriff's Office

The search for Mollie presses on, with the reward for information leading to her safe return climbing to more than $270,000 and police saying they have received hundreds of tips and leads.

Set to be a sophomore at the University of Iowa who was studying psychology, Mollie has not been seen since the evening of July 18, when she was spotted on her usual jog around Brooklyn, Iowa, around 7:30. Her family is resolute that she is alive, somewhere.

“It’s totally speculation on my part, but I think Mollie is with someone that she knows, that is in over their head,” Rob told ABC News this week. “That there was some kind of misunderstanding about the nature of their relationship and at this point they don’t know how to get out from under this.”

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Mollie’s aberrant disappearance has generated an immense amount of media coverage, which Rob hopes will lead to information about his daughter’s whereabouts.

“You’re talking about a Norman Rockwell community, the all-American girl whose boyfriend is the boy next door — how can this happen, and without any trace or explanation whatsoever?” he says. “We think Mollie is a spectacular woman, but she’s no different than any other girl in America.”

He tells PEOPLE that investigators have said very little to him about their work, and they in turn have become progressively more tight-lipped with the public, declining to discuss suspects or the scope of evidence recovered, if any.

On Friday, state authorities acknowledged their reticence can be frustrating but said they think it “gives us the best opportunity to resolve the investigation.”

Mollie Tibbetts (left) with her boyfriend, Dalton Jack, last year
Courtesy Emily Heaston
Mollie Tibbetts (bottom) with relatives
Courtesy Emily Heaston

Echoing what law enforcement has said, Rob says he’s not slowing down in his search for his daughter. He’s going to keep giving interviews and he’s going to keep handing out missing-persons fliers, at concerts and car shows and wherever else he can.

“She’s smart, she works hard and she is very poised, but her world is a mess and she has attitude and she can’t drive to save her life,” he says of his daughter. “She’s just a young woman like everybody else’s daughter, sister, or girlfriend. She’s not Saint Mollie, is what I’m trying to say. But we need her back.”

Rob says he wants everyone who can cooperate with the investigation to do so — even social media giants.

“We are gonna find Mollie through a combination of tips but also with her digital footprint,” he says, noting she had both her phone and her fitness tracker on her when she vanished. (Neither device has been recovered.)

“She was on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook — all of those social platforms,” her dad explains. “We need those companies to enthusiastically work with law enforcement to find Mollie.”

When he’s working on finding her, it’s easy not to worry about Mollie, Rob says.

“It’s at 10 p.m., when you’re driving home in your car, or when you wake up at 1 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep … that’s when you think about the worst-case scenarios,” he tells PEOPLE. “We all have our moments. We all break down privately and together. But our feelings are immaterial right now. Breaking down is not going to help bring Mollie back.”

Tibbetts is described as 5-foot-3-inches tall, weighing about 120 lbs., with long brown hair and brown eyes. Anyone with information about her is urged to contact authorities at 800-452-1111 or 515-223-1400 or email tips@poweshiekcosheriff.com.