An Iowa teen convicted of murdering a high school Spanish teacher was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday, more than two years after he helped a friend stalk and beat the teacher with a bat over a bad grade.
Jeremy Goodale, 18, was sentenced to life with a possibility of parole in 25 years for his role in killing Nohema Graber, a 66-year-old teacher at Fairfield High School, in November 2021. Goodale and Willard Miller, who were both 16 at the time of the killing, pleaded guilty in April to first-degree murder charges.
Prosecutors said that Goodale and Miller plotted to kill Graber because Miller was failing Spanish class and the bad grade would prevent him from participating in a study-abroad program. The two students stalked Graber as she went for a walk in a park in Fairfield, Iowa, and used a bat to beat her to death. After Graber’s body was found hidden under a tarp and a wheelbarrow, the teens were arrested based on statements Goodale made to friends on social media that were discovered by police.
“I’m sorry, truly sorry. What I’ve taken can never be replaced,” Goodale said through tears during sentencing, according to the Associated Press. “Every day I wish I could go back and stop myself, prevent this loss and this pain that I’ve caused everyone.”
Judge Shawn Showers explained the 25 factors he considered before handing down the life sentence. While the judge said Goodale needed “significant rehabilitation,” Showers noted that the teen had shown more remorse and accepted more responsibility for his actions than had Miller and that Goodale agreed to testify against his friend if the case had gone to trial. The judge described the now 18-year-old Miller, who was sentenced in July to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 35 years, as being “far more sinister in his planning” to kill the teacher.
“Unlike your co-defendant, it’s clear to me you have regretted your role in Ms. Graber’s murder,” Showers told Goodale, according to the Des Moines Register. The judge added, “I think time will tell, but you’re far more likely to be successful than Mr. Miller.”
The sentencing was praised by Graber’s family, who emphasized that the teacher’s killing has devastated the family over the last two years. Family members noted how Graber’s husband, Paul, died of cancer after his wife was murdered.
“I am so ready to clear my head of thoughts of Jeremy Goodale and his co-defendant Willard Miller,” Barbara Graber, the teacher’s sister-in-law, wrote in a victim impact statement that was read Wednesday. “It haunts me the last face Nohema saw on this earth, and the last words she heard, were those of Mr. Goodale.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment early Thursday. Prosecutor Chauncey Moulding told the Register that he was pleased with the sentence, adding that he believed Goodale showed remorse for the killing.
“I believe Jeremy committed one of the most heinous acts we’ve seen in Jefferson County, but that doesn’t speak to who he can become with the right treatment and programming,” he said.
Nohema Graber moved from Mexico to Fairfield, a small Iowa city about 100 miles southeast of Des Moines, in 1992 and earned her teaching certificate. She had been teaching at Fairfield High School since 2012.
On the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2021, Miller met with Graber at the school to discuss his poor performance in her class, according to court documents. Miller later acknowledged to authorities that he had been frustrated with how Graber had taught her Spanish class and how his GPA had suffered as a result.
That same day, Graber drove her van to a park where she was known to take daily walks, authorities said. That’s when Miller and Goodale followed and beat her. Witnesses later saw her van leaving the park with two males in the front seat, according to investigators.
While Miller initially denied any involvement in the teacher’s death, court documents said, a witness provided photos to authorities of a Snapchat conversation “that identify Goodale’s admissions that he acted in concert with another person to bring about Graber’s death.” The messages described the motive for killing Graber, the planning and execution, and how the teens had tried to hide the evidence, according to prosecutors. Goodale later told investigators that he wanted to help Miller kill Graber because of his friend’s bad Spanish grade.
Both teens were tried as adults. Showers said at Miller’s sentencing that he would have given him a mandatory life sentence, but Iowa law does not allow such sentences for juveniles.
During his sentencing, Goodale reiterated his remorse for what he had done.
“I know my words will never be enough. To Ms. Graber and all my family, I’m truly sorry,” Goodale said, according to KCCI, a CBS affiliate in Des Moines. “And, Dad, I’m sorry that I let you down in so many ways.”
But some of Graber’s family members didn’t believe the teen truly felt remorse for killing their loved one.
“I must say, your actions to me undercut that,” said Tom Graber, the brother of the teacher’s husband. “You’re now an adult. You’re over the age of 18, and yet you have your counsel to represent you … arguing on your behalf to escape punishment for this horrific crime. That doesn’t sound like remorse to me.”
Others, however, said they had forgiven Goodale and hoped he could learn from his crime.
“I do want you to know I pray you will continue your journey to find God,” said Jim Graber, also the teacher’s brother-in-law, “and I pray for your safety and salvation.”