By EMANUELLA GRINBERG
FAIRFIELD, Iowa (Court TV) — An Iowa judge on Thursday sentenced 17-year-old Willard Chaiden Miller to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 35 years for recruiting a friend to help him kill the Spanish teacher who gave him a failing grade, threatening his chances of studying abroad.
Miller pleaded guilty in April to first-degree murder for Nohema Graber’s death in November 2021. The disappearance of the 66-year-old married mother of three and active church member sparked a community-wide search that led to her battered body under a wheelbarrow in a Fairfield park where she took daily walks.
Miller and his friend, Jeremy Goodale, confessed to ambushing Graber in the park, beating her to death with a baseball bat, and hiding her body. In exchange for their pleas, Iowa prosecutors agreed to recommend sentences of life with parole eligibility after 30 years for Miller and 25 years for Goodale, who is due to be sentenced in August.
At Miller’s sentencing hearing in Jefferson County Circuit Court, Judge Shawn Showers said the teenager’s decision to spare the community a trial with a guilty plea weighed in his favor. Nevertheless, the judge went above the prosecutors’ recommendation, saying the cold-blooded, premeditated nature of Graber’s death, and its impact on her family and the community called for a lengthy minimum sentence — even though juveniles in Iowa are not required to serve mandatory minimum sentences.
“Your horrific actions led to death of Nohema Graber and nothing can ever fill that void,” Showers said. “To the extent that anyone would plan a murder based on an unsatisfactory grade would require immense rehabilitation.”
Miller apologized to Graber’s family and the community, saying he accepted responsibility for his actions. Miller’s defense argued he should be treated as a juvenile in sentencing because of his age — 16 — and maturity level when he killed Graber.
“He may have looked like an adult when he was arrested, but he was 16 years old and his behaviors certainly show that of a 16-year-old,” Miller’s lawyer, Christine E. Branstad, told the court. “There are a number of pieces of evidence that show he participated in murder. He did. There’s evidence that he did not tell the truth. He didn’t. That’s evidence of a juvenile in many ways.”
Miller’s defense maintained throughout the hearing that only Goodale struck Graber while Miller served as lookout — a position the judge described as Miller downplaying his involvement, which didn’t serve him in sentencing. Showers also noted that Miller waited until sentencing to express remorse, another factor that the judge counted against him.
“But for your planning and actions, Nohema Graber would still be alive. You planned and carried out the murder of your teacher, and did it in a cruel manner,” the judge said.
Showers rendered his sentence Thursday after prosecutors presented several hours’ worth of testimony and exhibits illuminating the investigation. Among the evidence presented:
Google searches on Miller’s phone for what happens if your teacher dies in the middle of the course.
- Goodale’s interview with police — conducted as an evidence proffer after he and Miller were arrested and charged with murder — in which he said Miller began planning the murder two weeks in advance by surveilling Graber and determining that she took daily afternoon walks in Fairfield’s Chataqua Park. On November 2, 2021, Goodale said he distracted Graber while Miller bashed her from behind with a bat, then Goodale delivered the final blows to make sure she was dead.
Miller’s interview with police in which he initially denied having contact with Goodale or Graber on the day in question, then changed his account to say that he saw a group of masked people followed Graber into the park and carry her into the woods.
- Miller told a friend the day after the murder that he “caught someone with a baseball bat,’ which the friend took to mean “killing” or “striking” someone. On cross, it came out that the friend thought Miller was joking.
- The victim was partially dressed when she was found. She was just wearing a bra. Her pants were down by her ankles. She had a turtleneck sweater thrown in trees. Another shirt was thrown up in the trees.
- Goodale sent Snapchats to friends saying that he and another person (who did not name Miller) attacked Nohema Graber in the park with a baseball bat because “she gave the wrong student a failing grade.”
- The defendant had a “prep” list on his phone that he emailed to Goodale that included items such as gloves, a hammer, trash bags wet wipes. Wet wipes were found at the crime scene.
The judge told Miller he was “fortunate” that Iowa did not allow life without the possibility of parole for juveniles because he would have given it serious consideration. Instead, the judge heeded a request from the victim’s late husband for a 35-year mandatory sentence before Miller is eligible for parole. Paul Graber died of cancer and was buried the day before the sentencing hearing. His relatives called a premature death that was hastened by his wife’s absence.
“His life ended because of cancer that would have been caught and treated sooner if Nohema had been there,” Tom Graber, brother of Paul Graber, told the court. “I am certain that she would have made Paul see the doctor sooner for the pain and skin lesions he was experiencing. She would not have let him ignore these symptoms.”
Other relatives spoke of Graber as a woman of deep faith whose warmth and compassion imbued every facet of her life, from teaching to caring for her special needs son to performing community outreach in Fairfield’s Latino community.
“Nohema had a good life, but she definitely had a lot of life left,” brother-in-law Jim Graber told the court. Addressing Miller directly, he added, “I hope you open your heart to the Lord because you’re on a spiral to hell.”
Correction: A previous version of this story named the defendant as William in the headline.