By Daniel Lathrop, Des Moines Register
FAIRFIELD — Several hundred people crowded together outside the high school gym as beloved members of this tight-knit, southeast Iowa city of 10,000 Friday night.
They lit candles, sang and talked about Nohema Graber, Fairfield High School’s 66-year-old Spanish teacher. The candlelight vigil came after her body was found Wednesday in nearby Chataqua Park, the victim of an alleged homicide.
As the event began, fellow high school teacher Fred Hucke played guitar and sang a song he had composed for the occasion.
In the song, “A Light for Nohema,” he called on the community to heal.
“While someone else sorts out just who’s to blame, it’s our job to tend to the living just the same,” he sang. “So we go on.”
Many of those present were personal friends — some of them from the town’s tight-knit Hispanic community.
“It’s weird to say she was just a friend,” Maria Jimenez told the Des Moines Register. “She literally was our family.”
“She would join in our birthday parties and families. Every celebration, she was there,” said Jimenez, a native of Fairfield who went to school with Graber’s daughter, Nohema Marie Graber.
“Everyone in the Hispanic community considered her a part of their family,” she told the crowd.
Most who attended and who spoke echoed Hucke’s hopeful tone.
But police in tactical gear at the edge of the crowd were evidence of a community still very much on edge.
What is known about the crime
Graber was last seen alive Tuesday and reported missing Wednesday after not returning home the night before.
Police and firefighters mounted a search and located a body later that day at the park, where she was known to walk each afternoon, a popular pastime in Fairfield.
On Thursday, police arrested 16-year-old Fairfield High students Willard Noble Chaiden Miller and Jeremy Everett Goodale on charges of first-degree murder and first-degree conspiracy to commit murder.
According to court filings, an “associate” of the boys tipped police off to social media communications in which they allegedly detailed the crime and attempts to conceal it.
Neither boy has a prior criminal record.
For a religious woman, a religious event
Two members of the clergy spoke at the memorial for Graber, a devoted Catholic who attended daily Mass.
One of those was Father Nick Adam, Graber’s priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
Yet one of the night’s most emotional moments came when a Lutheran minister, Ryan Dexter, spoke to the gathered crowd.
“It’s nonsensical, what’s taken place. I think that we would all agree with that,” he told the group. “Look around. Look at this group that’s here — this huge group. You’re here because you care. You’re here because you love your children, your grandchildren, your friends, the staff that is here. You’re here because this has to stop.”
“We live in a broken world. We’ve gone through a period of time that has aggravated that. It’s time for us to recognize that has done exactly that — aggravated it,” he added shortly before leading the group in the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer.
While friends were part of the crowd gathered in the evening chill, many were Graber’s current and former students.
Willow Larsen, a 16-year-old sophomore in one of Graber’s classes, described her as “very caring; also, super friendly.”
Larsen said she was a “tough” teacher whose students liked her anyway.
“Her class was kind of hard at first, but she was a good teacher. She really pounded that stuff into your head so you would remember and helped you with tests and stuff,” Larsen said.
Jacob Bland, a 19-year-old freshman at Iowa State University, traveled home from Ames to attend the vigil in honor of his former teacher, who he described as “upbeat” and “really nice.”
He was unable to explain exactly what drew him home, but said he knew he needed to be here.
Some, like William Fant, didn’t know Graber by name but saw her every day when each took their daily walks in the park.
“I’m just overwhelmed by grief,” Fant said. “I mean, it’s a small town. I can’t figure out what’s in those kids’ minds.”
Others were just there to support their grieving neighbors.
One of those was rural Fairfield resident Ron Baldosier. He, too, didn’t know Graber, although two of his granddaughters had been her students.
“I think the city will get stronger. It’s just too bad we have to,” he told the Register.