Two teenage boys have both been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of their 66-year-old Spanish teacher.
Willard Miller, 17, and Jeremy Goodale, 18, admitted to participating in the brutal beating of Fairfield High School teacher Nohema Graber on 2 November 2021. The teens made their guilty pleas at separate hearings in April.
Goodale and Miller, then aged 16, beat Graber to death with a baseball bat. Miller’s last-minute plea change came just days before his trial was set to begin, The Livingston Enterprise reported.
They were allegedly motivated to commit the brutal act after Miller received a bad grade, court filings have revealed.
“The poor grade is believed to be the motive behind the murder of [Nohema] Graber which directly connects Miller,” read court documents filed by Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey Moulding and Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown.
Both Miller and Goodale were tried as adults over the murder. While they were both aged 16 at the time of the killing, in Iowa law anyone 16 or over charged with a forcible felony is automatically waived to adult court and is subject to the same criminal procedures and penalties as adults.
However, Iowa law does dictate that juvenile offenders — even those accused of the most heinous and serious crimes — must be given an opportunity for parole.
Here’s what we know about the case:
On 3 November 2021, Graber’s badly beaten body was discovered in Chautauqua Park in Fairfield, Iowa – hours after she was reported missing.
Her body was found “concealed under a tarp, wheelbarrow and railroad ties” and she had suffered “trauma to the head”, police said.
Two days after her body was found, police announced the arrests of two 16-year-old suspects.
Miller and Goodale, students at Fairfield High School, were charged with murder in the first degree and conspiracy to commit a forcible felony.
Jefferson County Attorney Chauncy Moulding alleged in court filings that the impetus for the murder began after Miller met with his Spanish teacher at the school to discuss a bad grade he’d received in her class that would harm his overall GPA. He also used a pejorative during an interview when speaking about the teacher.
Although the 17-year-old initially denied having any involvement in his teacher’s disappearance and death, he allegedly “later stated he had knowledge of everything but did not participate,” the documents read. But investigators said that evidence suggests both teens participated in the murder.
Based on the state’s account of events, Ms Graber drove after school to the park – where she would always go on her daily walk. She left her vehicle at around 4pm in the parking lot.
At some point during her walk, the pair of teens allegedly ambushed her with a baseball bat and dealt the fatal blows.
Prosecutors said witnesses then saw Graber’s van leaving the park approximately 42 minutes after she had arrived – being driven away by two males in the front seat.
The van was later found at the end of a rural road. Prosecutors said a call was placed from Goodale’s phone to a witness, who picked the two suspects up from the same road.
Goodale testified that they planned the killing for about two weeks, according to the AP.
“On November 2 of 2021, I met Willard Miller at Chautauqua Park, and I understood that he had intent to kill Mrs Graber,” Goodale said in a statement as he entered the plea in April.
“After he had struck Nohema Graber, he then moved her off of the trail where I then struck her and she died as a result,” Goodale said. “Afterwards, we removed any evidence that we could.”
Miller’s attorney Christine Branstad previously made the case that evidence should be suppressed from his then-upcoming trial.
This evidence included information gathered from his home, statements the then-16-year-old made to police, information from his cellphone and chat history from his Snapchat account.
Ms Branstad tried to argue that the four search warrants that brought this evidence to light should be struck from the record because investigators failed to show the magistrate judge their informant was reliable or that the information should be treated as reliable.
During an interview with Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents, Miller allegedly admitted that he took the wheelbarrow used to cover Graber’s body from his home.
A witness also told police that they saw a wheelbarrow being pushed down a street before midnight on the night of the murder.
Investigators have also cited evidence from Goodale’s Snapchat history, which a witness who knew the teens showed to authorities after the murder.
In the Snapchat messages, Goodale allegedly revealed that the two defendants “were involved in the planning, execution and disposal of evidence” in Graber’s murder.
The search warrant for the Snapchat messages also allegedly revealed how the pair had “surveilled” Graber and provided additional details about how they killed her, disposed of her body and covered up evidence.
Miller was sentenced first of the two teens. In July he received life in prison with the possibility of parole after 35 years, according to USA Today.
Judge Shawn Showers told Miller, “Your horrific actions led to the death of Nohema Graber, and her family will never be able to fill that void,” adding that he may have considered handing down a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if that had been allowed within the parameters of state law. A 2016 law in Iowa bans sentencing without parole for juvenile defendants.
Goodale was sentenced on Wednesday November 15. He was given life in prison with a possibility of parole in 25 years – the sentence previously sought by prosecutors.
Judge Showers ticked through 25 factors he had to consider before issuing his sentence of life with a 25-year minimum. He said it was clear Goodale was remorseful and didn’t consider the repercussions of killing Graber, but Showers noted the teen is a smart person who could easily have stopped it from being carried out.
Both Miller and Goodale have been ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to the Graber family.
Before being sentenced, Goodale apologised to the teacher’s family, the community and his own family.
“I’m sorry, truly sorry. What I’ve taken can never be replaced,” Goodale said, at times through sobs. “Every day I wish I could go back and stop myself, prevent this loss and this pain that I’ve caused everyone.”
During Miller’s sentencing on July 6, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown said, “This was a cruel, heinous act by two defendants”.
“I cannot imagine anything really worse than to be attacked in the manner that she was, for what? A grade,” he added. “This defendant deserves every day he gets in prison. Every single one.”
Miller also apologised to the Graber family, saying : “I would like to apologize for my actions. First and foremost to the family, I am sincerely sorry for the distress that I caused you and the devastation that I caused your family.”
A special agent at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Trent Vileta, testified at the sentencing hearing that the messages were “very graphic in nature” and detailed how the murder had occurred.
The teenagers’ accounts of what happened went apart as they outlined their actions – both claimed in April to have been the lookout as the other struck Ms Graber first and both said they knew that the other had the intention to kill the teacher.
Miller said he didn’t strike Ms Graber, but Goodale said Miller hit her first and then Goodale struck her after noticing that the first blow didn’t end her life.
Defence lawyers for Miller argued he wasn’t wielding the baseball bat during the attack.
Miller denied being aware of the murder at the time but subsequently claimed that “a roving gang of masked kids” had forced him to help hide the teacher’s body and to drive her van away from the area.
Mr Vileta said that Goodale’s messages on Snapchat revealed that the attack occurred because Ms Graber had handed down a failing grade.
Goodale said the teacher “had failed the wrong student,” according to Mr Vileta. When Ms Graber was killed, Miller was getting an F grade.
‘Robbed of 30-some of the best years of her life’
Speaking before Goodale was sentenced on Wednesday, 10 members of Graber’s family gave victim impact statements or had statements read by a court official. During those statements, Goodale appeared to struggle to maintain his composure and hold back tears.
Ms Graber had stayed close to her ex-husband Paul. He died earlier this year, aged 68, prosecutors said previously. The cause of death was metastatic cancer.
The teacher’s brother-in-law Tom Graber said the disease had been caught sooner had Ms Graber been alive.
Speaking at Goodale’s sentencing, Mr Graber said the killing devastated their family and hastened his brother’s death. He said Goodale sounded and looked remorseful in his court statement, but he questioned the authenticity of those statements.
“I must say your actions to me undercut that,” Graber said. “You’re now an adult. You’re over the age of 18, and yet you have your counsel to represent you ... arguing on your behalf to escape punishment for this horrific crime. That doesn’t sound like remorse to me.”
At Miller’s sentencing Mr Graber also addressed court.
“Not only was Nohema robbed of 30-some of the best years of her life, her murder deprived Paul Graber of the love of his life and certainly hastened Paul’s own premature death,” he said, according to USA Today.
Ms Graber was born in Mexico and was a leading member of a small Latino community. She began as a Spanish teacher at Fairfield High School in 2012.
The Fairfield schools Superintendent, Lauri Noll, said Ms Graber, “touched the lives of many students, parents and staff”.
Fairfield police officer Julie Kinsella spoke about the impact on the community during the Thursday hearing.
“We had students that were scared to death to attend class, we had teachers that didn’t want to teach for concerns of their own safety,” she said. “I don’t think that our community will ever be the same again. I think it’s devastated us.”