By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
FAIRFIELD — At his sentencing July 6, Willard Chaiden Miller,17, apologized and accepted responsibility for the brutal death of Nohema Graber, his Fairfield High School Spanish teacher who was an active member of her Catholic parish. Miller was failing her Spanish class.
Judge Shawn Showers, who meted out a life sentence to Miller with the possibility of parole in 35 years, told the youth his actions and motivation were “sinister and evil.” Miller and his classmate Jeremy Goodale both pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the baseball-bat beating death of Nohema Graber on Nov. 2, 2021 in a Fairfield park where she walked daily after school. Goodale faces sentencing in August. Iowa law prohibits imposition of life sentences for minors without the possibility of parole.
“I still think there is potential for you to become a decent person,” Christian Graber, the oldest of Nohema and Paul Graber’s three children, said in his impact statement during the sentencing in Jefferson County District Court in Fairfield. “I don’t see it at the moment but I really hope that one day you can be.” Other family members also provided impact statements during the hearing.
Paul Graber, who remained close to Nohema, his former wife, hoped to give an impact statement but died the week before of cancer, his brother, Tom Graber, told the court. He believes Nohema’s death was a contributing factor in Paul’s death.
The night before sentencing, the family celebrated a prayer service at St. Mary Catholic Church in Fairfield, where Paul and Nohema participated in eucharistic adoration on first Thursdays.
Although Paul was not Catholic, he had a close connection to St. Mary Parish because of Nohema’s involvement and commitment to her Catholic faith.
Father Nick Adam, St. Mary’s pastor, said the couple always showed up for the 5-6 p.m. adoration hour. Over time, he came to know of their deep love for each other. Nohema, who was born and raised in Mexico, was a go-between for the parish’s Anglos and Hispanics. “She lived for the Eucharist and would come as often as possible for daily Mass and attended Saturday night Mass at 5:30 and would then return for our Sunday Mass as well.” She also prayed the rosary weekly with a group of fellow Hispanics.
“After Nohema died, Paul came to see me two or three times,” Father Adam said. He wasn’t a parishioner but the connection to St. Mary remained and the pastor responded out of a sense of compassion and concern. “When he was dying in the hospital, I went to visit him. I knelt on the floor and said something about seeing God and Nohema face to face. He had a tear in his eye,” Father Adam continued. They prayed the Lord’s Prayer.
While the family prayer service was private, reflecting Paul’s quiet personality, “it ended up being a full church,” Father Adam said. Nohema’s death has left a hole in the parish’s heart. “Our faith, hope, love and the resurrection carry us onward,” he added.
Parish secretary Roberta Danielson believes Nohema set an example for her family of love and forgiveness. Her son Christian’s impact statement inspired Danielson to think of St. John Paul II, who forgave the man who attempted to kill him. “I think the biggest lesson from all of this is forgiveness,” Danielson said.
Diane Tone, the parish’s youth ministry coordinator who was close to Nohema, believes the judge made the right decision in handing down the maximum sentence. “So many lives have been changed,” said Tone, who continues to pray for the conversion of both of the teens responsible for her friend’s death.
Father Adam said the healing process requires “lots of time, prayer and forgiveness.”