Nohema Graber, slain high school teacher and former pilot, was an ‘an absolute angel,’ her family says


By Daniel Lathrop, Des Moines Register

FAIRFIELD — Nohema Graber’s life from Mexican immigrant to Iowa high school teacher was not predictable, and her violent death was shocking.

Graber, a Spanish teacher at the high school here and mother of three, was, her daughter wrote on Facebook, “an absolute angel in our family.”


According to police, her life ended Tuesday at the city’s Chautauqua Park. Two 16-year-old students from Fairfield High were charged with her murder Thursday.

In criminal complaints, police say they found Graber’s body Wednesday in the park under a tarp, wheelbarrow and railroad ties. Detectives wrote that their preliminary investigation indicated Graber suffered “inflicted trauma to the head.”

Investigators say an associate of the students provided information from social media exchanges that indicated one allegedly knew specifics of Graber’s disappearance and death — including the alleged involvement of the other, their motive to kill Graber, the planning and execution of the killing, and “deliberate attempts to conceal the crime.”


“To the two teenagers that so cruelly took her life, it is clear that they need more love and light in their hearts,” Nohema Graber’s daughter, Nohema Marie Graber, continued.

In a statement Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said: “My heart goes out to the family, friends, colleagues and students that are dealing with this tragic murder of Nohema Graber. Ms. Graber touched countless children’s lives through her work as an educator … I am confident through the work of our dedicated law enforcement that justice will prevail.”

Born in the ‘Athens of Veracruz,’ became a commercial pilot


Graber’s story began 66 years ago in the “Athens of Veracruz.”

Nohema Castillo y Castillo was born in Xalapa, the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz. Xalapa is known as a cultural center, and more than 800,000 people call it home.

Her birth name was unexpected. Her older brothers and sisters were all given the last name “Castillo Castillo” by their mom and dad, who shared a not uncommon last name. But the clerk who registered her birth came from a town that followed an old tradition of placing “y,” Spanish for “and,” between parents’ family names in such cases.

“She was always proud of that ‘y,’ ” her ex-husband, Paul Graber, told the Des Moines Register. According to Paul Graber and other family members, the two had remained close since their divorce five years ago.

In fact, Paul Graber said he was the one who reported her missing to police Wednesday morning — sparking the search that eventually led police to her body.

After graduating from high school, Graber became a flight attendant with the now-defunct Mexicana de Aviación, then her home country’s oldest airline.

But she wasn’t satisfied, so she did something wholly unexpected, Paul Graber said: She began to study to be a commercial airline pilot, paying her way through flight school to become one of the first women in Mexico to be licensed to fly passenger jets.

Paul and Nohema, still Castillo y Castillo then, had met at a party and, 11 years later, when he was flying on business, he called her when he had a layover in her city. He wasn’t expecting she’d even be home, but he wanted to try.

“She had the day off,” he said.

So they saw each other in person for the first time since they were teenagers.


Soon, they were a couple and eventually married.

She continued her career with the airlines and he had a job as a consultant in Mexico City helping foreign companies navigate the Mexican bureaucracy, he said.

They loved Mexico City, their lives and their careers. Fairfield was just a place they went to visit Paul’s family.

Children, a move to Iowa, a new path 

The next chapter of Nohema Graber’s life began in 1991, when she gave birth to a son, Christian — who would later follow in his mother’s airborne footsteps with a job as an international courier.

Next, in 1992, came a second son, Jared.

Eventually, Nohema and Paul decided they wanted to leave Mexico City for a place where their kids wouldn’t grow up with “bars on the windows,” he said.

Where else to move but Fairfield? Paul Graber had grown up there, the town had become a bit more cosmopolitan — what is now the Maharishi International University had relocated there in the mid-1970s — and it was a good place to raise a family.

A few years later, they had their third child, daughter Nohema Marie.

Nohema Graber became active in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, eventually attending mass daily, and, according to Paul Graber, became a liaison between the church and what was then a small but growing Latino population.

In a statement Friday, Father Nick Adam of St. Mary’s Catholic Church said of Nohema, “She was a very kind, compassionate, faith-filled woman who treasured every moment of her day.”

As their children grew older, Nohema Graber decided, in her 50s, to get a degree in English and a teaching certificate from Iowa Wesleyan University in nearby Mount Pleasant.

Nohema Graber had expected her English degree would turn into a job as an English teacher, but when she graduated from Iowa Wesleyan in 2006, Spanish teachers were in demand. And she was a native speaker.

Her first job as a teacher was at Ottumwa High School, where she taught until 2012.


When a part-time job opened for a teacher at Fairfield High School, she took it in hopes it could become full-time, Paul Graber said. It did.

She quickly became a fixture at Fairfield High School, loved by many students. She often received cards and letters from former students, Paul Graber said.

“In her nine years with Fairfield High School, Mrs. Graber touched the lives of many students, parents and staff,” Laurie Noll, the Fairfield Community School District’s superintendent, said in a statement Thursday.

“She just wanted kids to better themselves. That’s why this act of insanity or violence was just such a waste of so many lives,” Paul Graber said.

Daniel Lathrop is a staff writer on the Register’s investigative team. Reach him at (319) 244-8873 or [email protected]. Follow him at @lathropd on Twitter and

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