Nearly 18 months after a pair of Fairfield, Iowa, teens bludgeoned a Spanish teacher to death with a baseball bat after a dispute over a bad grade – a brutal tragedy that shook the southeast Iowa city and people across the state ― they pleaded guilty to first-degree murder Tuesday.
Willard Miller and Jeremy Goodale were both 16 when they were charged with the Nov. 3, 2021, slaying of Fairfield High School teacher Nohema Graber, whose body was discovered in a city park, hidden under a tarp, wheelbarrow and railroad ties.
The town of Fairfield is home to some 9,400 people and is about 100 miles southeast of Des Moines.
As details of the ambush and killing emerged, it left the community of 9,600 in deep shock and mourning over the loss of the well-regarded educator and leader in the town’s small but growing Latino community.
“We’re glad the defendants have taken responsibility for the crime they committed and look forward to making sure justice is done at sentencing,” Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey Moulding said following the hearings.
Prosecutors will recommend that Miller, now 17, receive life in prison with eligibility for parole after 30 years, and that Goodale, now 18, be eligible for parole after 25 years.
Prosecutors said the teens ambushed Graber when she went for her daily afternoon walk, after Miller met with her to discuss his grade. Witnesses saw her van leaving the park less than an hour later with two males in the front seat; it was later found abandoned. Goodale and Miller were initially detained after a witness provided police with photos of a Snapchat conversation in which Goodale allegedly implicated himself and Miller in the killing.
Who was Nohema Graber?
Graber, whose family was in the courtroom for Tuesday’s plea, was days short of her 67th birthday when she was killed. She was born in Mexico and after high school worked as a flight attendant and later as a pilot with the now-defunct Mexicana de Aviación airline.
She moved to Fairfield, her then-husband Paul’s hometown, in the 1990s and earned an English degree from Iowa Wesleyan University in 2006. She taught Spanish at Ottumwa High School until 2012, then took the same assignment at Fairfield High School, serving there until her death.
Graber had three adult children, and in addition to them and her ex-husband was survived by several siblings and many nephews and nieces. In the days after her death, her family recalled her as an “absolute angel” and Fairfield schools Superintendent Lauri Noll said Graber “touched the lives of many students, parents and staff” in her nine years at Fairfield High.
What was the motive?
Although prosecutors alleged in court filings that Graber had been beaten to death with a baseball bat and her body was hidden in Fairfield’s Chautauqua Park, it was not until almost a year after her death that they disclosed the alleged motive: Miller was upset about his grade in her class and had been seen arguing with her about it.
In a November 2022 court filing, prosecutors said Miller told investigators he’d met with Graber the day of her murder, that he felt “frustration” over her hurting his grade point average, and in their interview referred to her with a coarse pejorative. Miller reportedly denied knowledge of the killing, but later said that “a roving gang of masked kids,” in prosecutors’ words, had forced him to help conceal Graber’s body and drive her van away from the scene.
Defendants give differing accounts of murder
In their hearings Tuesday, both teens admitted to being involved in the murder, but their stories differed in key details.
Miller testified first that he acted as a lookout while Goodale killed Graber, and that he went to the park knowing Goodale intended to kill her. But he denied striking any blows himself.
Goodale, though, said it was Miller who struck the first blow. In his account, he acted as lookout while Miller struck Graber in the back of the head, with Goodale hitting her a second time after seeing the first blow hadn’t killed her.
“I met Willard Miller at Chatauqua Park. I understood he had the intent to kill Mrs. Graber,” Goodale said. “(Miller) had brought a bat among other supplies to go through with the murder, and after he had struck Nohema Graber, we then moved her off of the trail, where I then struck her, and she died as a result. After, we removed any evidence that we could.”.
Prosecutor Scott Brown said the state believes both teens took part in killing Graber, and that Miller recruited Goodale to help him and planned the murder for about two weeks before Graber was killed.
Miller’s conviction and potential sentence will be the same whether the judge believes he actually wielded the bat or aided and abetted in the killing.
What evidence did police have?
Goodale and Willard were initially detained after several classmates approached police to show Snapchat messages, allegedly by Goodale, implicating himself and Miller in the killing.
Police subsequently interviewed both teens and obtained search warrants for their homes and phone records, evidence that Miller’s attorneys sought repeatedly and unsuccessfully to suppress. Court filings have made public only snippets from those interviews, and it was not clear whether police had DNA or other forensic evidence linking the teens to the crime.
What they definitely had, though, was Goodale’s testimony. While he originally was scheduled to stand trial after Miller in May, prosecutors disclosed at a March court hearing that he had agreed to turn state’s evidence and would testify at Miller’s trial.
What are the likely sentences?
Miller and Goodale will be sentenced at a later date. Because they were minors at the time of the attack, they are not eligible for a life sentence without the possibility of parole – the mandatory sentence for adults.
Although the prosecutors intend to recommend mandatory minimum sentences of 30 and 25 years respectively for Miller and Goodale, the judge is not bound by those recommendations.
Defense attorneys may make their own sentencing recommendations, and attorney Christine Branstad suggested she may seek a deferred sentence for Miller, based on his youth.
The two will also be jointly liable for $150,000 in restitution to Graber’s family.
Family voices thanks for ‘all the support for Nohema’
Speaking after the sentencing, Tom Graber, Nohema Graber’s ex-husband’s brother, said: “We’re glad the defendants have pleaded guilty. We’re disappointed that one is not, still, owning up to his full role, but he has at least pleaded guilty, and we look forward to sentencing.”.
He said the family approved in advance of the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations.
“We thank the prosecutors and the state for all they’ve done, and the outpouring from the community has been overwhelming with all the support for Nohema,” he said. “She had a huge impact on so many people’s lives here.”.
Community remembers Nohema Graber
At midday Tuesday at Fairfield restaurant Lunchbox, not far from the courthouse, Alex Kessel was surprised, but not shocked, to hear about Miller and Goodale’s pleas. He said he knew Graber through their church and called her a “devoted mother.”.
He said that even after many years in the United States, she may sometimes have seemed more reserved than she actually was because of her greater comfort in her native language.
“She had a quiet strongness around her. She was very kind,” said Kessel.
Graber was an active member at St. Mary Catholic Church in Fairfield. The priest there, the Rev. Nick Adam, said it was too soon to know how his congregation would react to news of the guilty pleas, but that Graber’s death had affected many in the church.
“Although we do not have special services planned here at St. Mary’s, as individual parishioners, many are keeping this situation – and all concerned – in our prayers,” he said.
The Fairfield community plans a second annual memorial walk for Graber, organized by the Fairfield High School Student Council, at 10 a.M. Saturday in Chautauqua Park. Proceeds from a silent auction and T-shirt sales will go toward a scholarship fund in her name.
William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at [email protected], 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.