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Iowa teens killed Spanish teacher over bad grade, prosecutors say

A judge was to hear arguments over whether to suppress against the two teens, who are charged with murdering their high school Spanish teacher in Fairfield.
/ Source: The Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa — Two Iowa teenagers killed their high school Spanish teacher last year because of frustration over a bad grade, prosecutors said Tuesday in court documents that for the first time reveal a possible motive.

The documents were filed ahead of a hearing Wednesday where a judge will hear arguments on whether to suppress any of the evidence against the two teens, who are charged with murdering high school Spanish teacher Nohema Graber in the small town of Fairfield.

NBC News does not usually name minors accused of crimes, even if they are charged as adults. 

A lawyer for one of the teens is asking the court in Fairfield to invalidate four search warrants and suppress evidence from their home, comments they made to police and information taken from their cellphone and the social media platform Snapchat.

Graber’s body was found in a Fairfield park Nov. 3, 2021, hidden under a tarp, wheelbarrow and railroad ties. She had been beaten to death with a baseball bat. The suspects were 16 at the time.

Fairfield is a town of about 9,400 people that’s some 100 miles from Des Moines.

Investigators allege that one of the teens met with Graber at Fairfield High School on the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2021, to discuss their poor grade in her class. Graber later drove her van to a park where she was known to take daily walks after school, authorities say. Witnesses saw her van leaving the park less than an hour later with two people in the front seat.

The van was left at the end of a rural road. After getting a phone call from one of the teens, a witness later picked up both of the suspects as they walked to town on that road, investigators say.

In a police interview, one of the teens described the frustrations they had with the way Graber taught Spanish and over how the grade in her class was lowering their GPA.

“The poor grade is believed to be the motive behind the murder of Graber," court documents filed by Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey Moulding and Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown said.

The student who described their frustrations over Graber's teaching initially denied any involvement in her disappearance but later stated they had knowledge of everything but did not participate,” according to court documents. They told police that the real killers — a “roving group of masked kids” — forced them to provide their wheelbarrow to help move her body and to drive her van from the park.

The documents say a witness provided photos of a Snapchat conversation that identified the other teen's admissions that they "acted in concert with another person to bring about Graber’s death.” The witness identified the teen as making statements that implicated both teens by name.

The lawyer asking the court in Fairfield to invalidate search warrants and suppress evidence found in one of the teen's homes, Christine Branstad, says that the search warrants were issued illegally in part because “law enforcement failed to provide information to the issuing magistrate to show the informant is reliable or that the information from the informant should be considered reliable.”

That teen is scheduled for trial on March 20 in Council Bluffs, while the other's trial is Dec. 5 in Davenport.

Both teens, now 17, will be tried as adults. In Iowa, the penalty for a first-degree murder conviction is life in prison. Iowa Supreme Court rulings require juveniles convicted of even the most serious crimes to be given a chance for parole.