The first of two Iowa teens who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder after bludgeoning a Spanish teacher to death with a baseball bat was sentenced Thursday to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 35 years.
Willard Miller, now 17, and Jeremy Goodale, now 18, were both 16 when they were charged with the Nov. 3, 2021, slaying of Fairfield High School teacher Nohema Graber, 66, whose body was discovered in a city park, hidden under a tarp, wheelbarrow and railroad ties. Both teens pleaded guilty in April.
“Your horrific actions led to the death of Nohema Graber, and her family will never be able to fill that void," Judge Shawn Showers said. The judge told Miller he would have considered sentencing him to life without parole if state law allowed such a sentence for a juvenile.
The killing rocked the southeast Iowa city of Fairfield, which has a population of less than 10,000 and is about 100 miles outside of Des Moines. Prosecutors said the teens attacked Graber in a park where she regularly walked after school. The motive for the killing was because she gave Miller a bad grade.
Prosecutors wanted life in prison for Miller, who was charged as an adult along with Goodale, with the possibility of parole after 30 years as part of a plea agreement. Goodale is set to be sentenced in August, but his attorneys have sought to delay the proceeding. Prosecutors will seek 25 years to life for Goodale under a plea agreement.
The pair will also be responsible for $150,000 in restitution to Graber's family.
"This was a cruel, heinous act by two defendants," Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown said during the sentencing hearing Thursday. "I cannot imagine anything really worse than to be attacked in the manner that she was, for what? A grade."
"This defendant deserves every day he gets in prison. Every single one," Brown said.
Miller said in court Thursday that he accepts responsibility for his role in Graber's murder and apologized to her family and community, and his own family.
"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," he said.
What happened to Nohema Graber?
Prosecutors said that Graber met with Miller to discuss his grade in her class the afternoon of Nov. 3, 2021. After school, she went for a walk in Fairfield's Chautauqua Park, as was her daily habit. Miller and Goodale ambushed her there, the state said.
Witnesses saw two males in the front seat of her van as it drove away from the park less than an hour later; it was later found abandoned. The two were detained after classmates showed police a conversation on Snapchat in which Goodale apparently implicated himself and Miller in the killing.
The Snapchat messages were "very graphic in nature" and described details of the murder, Trent Vileta, special agent with Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, testified on Thursday during Miller's sentencing hearing.
The teens gave differing stories about their involvement in the attack. In testimony given in April, both claimed to have acted as a lookout while the other struck the first blow. They both said they knew the other had intended to kill Graber. Miller denied striking any blows himself, while Goodale said Miller struck first and then Goodale struck her again after seeing that the first blow didn't kill her. Goodale testified they had planned the murder for two weeks.
Miller's defense attorneys conceded he participated in planning and carrying out the murder during the sentencing hearing Thursday but argued he didn't wield the bat in the attack.
What was the motive in the killing?
A November 2022 court filing revealed that Miller told investigators he'd felt "frustration" because Graber had given him a grade that hurt his grade point average. He also referred to her with a pejorative during an interview. At the time, Miller denied knowledge of the killing but later claimed "a roving gang of masked kids" had forced him to help conceal Graber's body and drive her van away from the scene.
Goodale's Snapchat messages also said the attack occurred because Graber had given a failing grade, Vileta testified Thursday. In the messages, Goodale said Graber "had failed the wrong student," Vileta said. Miller was receiving an F grade at the time of Graber's death, he said.
Family: Teacher's was robbed of the rest of her life
Graber's ex-husband, Paul, whom she remained close to until her death, also died just a few days ago at 68, prosecutors said Thursday. He died from a metastatic cancer that would have been caught and treated sooner if Graber were still alive, her brother-in-law Tom Graber said.
"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," Tom Graber said.
Graber, who was born in Mexico, was a well-regarded educator in the city and a leader of a small but growing Latino community. She had taught Spanish at Fairfield High School since 2012. Fairfield schools Superintendent Lauri Noll said she "touched the lives of many students, parents and staff."
"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," Julie Kinsella, a Fairfield police officer, testified Thursday about the impact on the community. "I don't think that our community will ever be the same again. I think it's devastated us."
Contributing: William Morris, the Des Moines Register; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iowa teen sentenced to 35 years to life in beating death of teacher