The first of two Iowa teenagers who pleaded guilty to fatally striking their Spanish teacher with a baseball bat in 2021 was sentenced Thursday to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 35 years.
Willard Miller was 16 years old when Fairfield High School teacher Nohema Graber, 66, was found dead on November 3, 2021.
Miller, dressed in an orange gown and sitting with his lawyers, showed no emotion Thursday after U.S. District Judge Shawn Showers sentenced him to a minimum of decades in prison after calling his actions “sinister and evil.”
Earlier in the day, Miller expressed remorse and apologized to Graber’s family, his own family and the community.
“I sincerely regret the anguish I have caused you,” he told the educator’s family. “What I did was wrong and I accept responsibility for my carelessness, for my ignorance.”
Graber’s body was discovered at Chautauqua Park in Fairfield shortly after she was reported missing. Investigators searched the park because the teacher was known to hike there, according to criminal complaints. They found her “concealed under a tarp, a wheelbarrow, and railroad ties,” the complaints say. She had suffered head trauma.
Miller and Jermey Goodale, who were also 16 at the time of the murder, were charged as adults with first-degree murder.
The teens allegedly observed Graber’s daily routine, ambushed her on her daily walk, dragged her body into the woods, and hit her with a baseball bataccording to court documents.
Prosecutors said the teens were angry with Graber because Miller was failing his class. Miller was first sentenced after he pleaded guilty in April as part of a deal in which prosecutors recommended between 30 years and life in prison, with the possibility of parole.
Goodale’s sentencing is scheduled for August, but his lawyers have called for the hearing to be delayed. Under his plea agreement in April, prosecutors recommended a sentence of 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Goodale testified that they had planned the murder for about two weeks and that they both beat the victim and then hid her body. Goodale said that Miller had initiated the plan. Miller admitted to helping but denied hitting Graber.
Defense attorney Christine Branstad argued in court Thursday that Miller should not have a mandatory sentence on him. His client cooperated with investigators, there was no physical evidence of him swinging the bat that killed Graber, the attorney said.
“He explains in great detail how it started as dark jokes and a plan that went ahead. He admits he provided the bat. He admits he was a lookout. He admits his involvement,” he said. “There is some disagreement as to whether or not he had the bat and teeed off… I think the evidence supports what Mr. Miller said. There was no blood on him, there was blood on Mr. Goodale.”
The two teens were charged as adults, but because of their age, they were not subject to a mandatory sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder. Miller is now 17 and Goodale is 18.
This is a developing story. Please check for updates.
Marlene Lenthang and The Associated Press contributed.