Laura Calderwood took in 17-year-old Ulises "Uli" Felix, who knows Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the suspect in Mollie Tibbetts' murder

By Chris Harris
December 28, 2018 05:57 PM
Mollie Tibbetts

In the aftermath of the slaying of 20-year-old Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly at the hands of an undocumented immigrant who worked and lived not far from her in their small town, Tibbetts’ mom forged a surprising connection with a teenage boy who knew her suspected killer.

According to a Friday report in the Washington Post, Laura Calderwood took in 17-year-old Ulises “Uli” Felix after his parents fled Brooklyn following the arrest of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the man accused of murdering Tibbetts while she was out for her regular evening jog in July.

Ulises’ parents had long worked with Rivera at a local dairy farm, the Post reports, but they had grown fearful of rising anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by Rivera’s alleged crime.

Their son, however, wanted to stay in the town where he grew up and where he played football and basketball.

At the behest of Calderwood’s son Scott, Ulises’ friend, she let him move into a spare room in her home, according to the Post.

Ulises’ family had become intimately connected with Rivera through the years, the Post reports: His mother had looked after Rivera when he came to America alone and his father helped him at work. Rivera had a daughter with Ulises’ cousin.

Still — they were floored by the allegations against him.

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According to the Post, Calderwood thought of her daughter when she was making her decision about caring for Ulises, knowing that Tibbetts would have been sympathetic to the other farm workers had been thrust into the glare of scrutiny because of Rivera.

After authorities charged Rivera, a number of politicians, including President Donald Trump, referenced the case in an attempt to bolster their ongoing arguments for increased border security against immigrants.

Tibbetts’ family, however, has rejected such politicization of her killing.

“I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome. But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist,” her father, Rob Tibbetts, wrote in a September column for the Des Moines Register.

RELATED: Everything We Know About College Student Mollie Tibbetts, Found Dead Weeks After Disappearing

Mollie Tibbetts

The Case So Far

On Aug. 21, authorities found Mollie’s remains in a Poweshiek County corn field where they had been hidden for weeks.

She vanished on July 18 after going for her regular jog around town. Her disappearance triggered national headlines and widespread ground and air searches.

About a month later, under police questioning, Rivera allegedly admitted pursuing her while she was running and killing her when she threatened to call the police.

He then stashed her body in the cornfield, eventually leading investigators to her remains in August, according to his arrest affidavit. Mollie was stabbed to death, according to her mom, the Post reports.

RELATED: Mollie Tibbetts’ Body Was Found 500 Yards Into Cornfield: ‘He Tried to Camouflage Her’

Rivera has pleaded not guilty in the slaying.

His attorneys have not returned PEOPLE’s request for comment. Allan Richards, a lawyer who previously represented him, told PEOPLE in August: “He was just a part of the community. An all-American boy working really hard.”

“Whether or not there was something that happened that was very outrageous, that is a different matter,” Richards has said. “I have seen no evidence on that at no point and he is presumed innocent until we see it.”

If convicted, Rivera faces life in prison.

Laura Calderwood could not be reached for further comment by PEOPLE on Friday.