By Natalie Krebs, Iowa Public Radio
A district court judge sentenced Fairfield teen Willard Miller to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 35 years for the brutal murder of his Spanish teacher over a bad grade.
Miller, 18, and his classmate Jeremy Goodale, 17, pleaded guilty to first degree murder in April for beating 66-year-old Spanish teacher Nohema Graber to death with a baseball bat in a Fairfield park in November 2021.
Miller and Goodale were both 16 years old at the time of the crime.
At the sentencing hearing on Thursday, Judge Shawn Showers said he chose to sentence Miller to life in prison due to the brutality of his crime.
“While acknowledging your youth and developing brain, I find your intent and actions are sinister and evil,” he said. “Those acts resulted in the intentional loss of human life in a brutal fashion.”
Additionally, Showers said Miller and Goodale are responsible for paying $150,000 in restitution to Graber’s estate or heirs.
The sentence goes along with the recommendation from prosecutors that Miller serve a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 30 years.
Prosecutor Scott Brown called Miller’s crime “heinous and brutal.” He described Miller as a “relatively good student” with no previous criminal history.
“He had a lot more support in his life than a lot of other kids his age, and yet. ..this is how he dealt with this problem,” he said.
Graber had taught at Fairfield High School for nine years and was a devout Catholic and a beloved member of the community.
She has three children and a husband, Paul, who died of cancer days before Miller’s sentencing hearing.
During the hearing, multiple members of Graber’s family testified that they believe her death indirectly led to Paul’s late cancer diagnosis.
“I am certain from knowing Nohema for more than 35 years that she would have made Paul see the doctor much sooner for the new pains and skin lesions he was experiencing late last year,” Tom Graber, her brother-in-law, said. “She would not have let him ignore these symptoms.”
Law enforcement officials detailed how on the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2021, Miller and Goodale followed Graber to Chautauqua Park in Fairfield where she was known to walk after school and killed her using Miller’s baseball bat, leaving her body under a tarp in a wooded area.
Her body was discovered after her husband and school officials reported her missing the following day. Miller and Goodale’s classmates provided police with evidence pointing in their direction.
Police said they believe the teens spent at least two weeks planning the murder because Miller was receiving a failing grade in Graber’s class. Goodale was Graber’s former student.
Miller’s lawyers argued that Miller served as a lookout and denied that he struck Graber with the bat.
“I think the evidence supports what Mr. Miller has said. There was no blood on him. There was blood on Mr. Goodell,” said attorney Christine Branstad.
However, Judge Showers said he ultimately concluded it’s unclear what Miller’s exact role had been, but he had done “immense harm” to Graber’s family and the Fairfield community.
“Certainly a high school junior who…formulates a plan with his friend and murders his Spanish teacher is a dangerous person to the community,” he said.