PALMER — Erick Almandinger's father and grandmother know an outraged public won't believe them.
Almandinger was the first of five teens charged in the death of 16-year-old David Grunwald, a killing that's attracted national attention and exposed a teen underworld in the Valley.
Rod and Myler Almandinger say they had no idea Grunwald's slaying may have started with a savage pistol-whipping in a camper-trailer next to Myler's Palmer home.
They also say their 16-year-old son and grandson deserves to pay for whatever he may have done, even though they're shocked it happened at all.
"We already know that nobody is going to accept what we're going to say," Rod said during an interview at the house on the edge of Palmer Monday. "We're just trying to tell you, we're just as devastated as the rest of you. We're just as angry as the rest of you."
Both say they feel terrible for the Grunwald family and haunted by what happened.
Rod says he still cries every night, not only for his son but for David.
"This whole situation is all so unreal. Every day I wake up thinking it's not really true," he said. "I'm just stuck inside a dream somewhere over and over."
'This kind of hell'
The case began with Grunwald's disappearance Nov. 13 — a Sunday night — and ended with the discovery of his body, beaten and shot once, near the Knik River on Dec. 2.
Alaska State Troopers immediately started visiting the Almandinger home almost daily because Grunwald's girlfriend told them he mentioned visiting Erick before he went missing.
His family says Almandinger spent more than two weeks lying to troopers and to them before Grunwald's body was found. Several of his friends, later charged in the crime, spent a night at the house afterward, they said.
Meanwhile, Rod and Myler joined hundreds of people looking for Grunwald and posting photos of the missing teen on social media.
Like the rest of the public, they say, they didn't know any more about David's disappearance until Almandinger was arrested on Dec. 3. The other four weren't arrested until this past weekend.
"Who would ever know this kind of hell went on?" Myler said.
Almandinger's interrogation at the Alaska State Troopers post in Palmer provided the first grim details of what may have happened to Grunwald after weeks of fruitless searches and speculation.
His father and grandmother sat with him through the six-hour interview.
Almandinger said that the night of the killing began when Grunwald came by to drink and smoke marijuana in the trailer, according to an initial charging document filed in the case. One teen asked Almandinger to bring out a pistol from the house and the teen bludgeoned Grunwald with it, the charges say. Then they forced Grunwald into his own Ford Bronco and drove him to the Knik, where he was shot, the court documents go on. The teens drove the Bronco across the Valley to the rough road leading up Bald Mountain Ridge where they set it on fire, according to the charges.
Asked about the killer's motive, Erick told an investigator that maybe it was because Grunwald "had smoked all his weed," the charges said.
Rod said he broke down crying in the hallway of the trooper post after he heard his son's story.
"I can't believe he did it," he said. "I can't believe they all did it."
The savage death of Grunwald, a handsome teenager from a well-respected military family, triggered a wave of anger and outrage toward the Almandingers last week.
The father of Grunwald's girlfriend called for a new state law to make parents liable in court for the "heinous" criminal acts of their children.
Posts on social media faulted the Almandinger family and asked how such a brutal beating could go on so close to the house without them knowing. Myler said she left Facebook after receiving hate-filled comments. People verbally attacked another family member who lives outside the Mat-Su. Rod answers his phone carefully and thinks he's been followed.
They don't know what happened to turn a "regular kid" like Erick into the monster the public believes he is now.
Almandinger attended Shaw Elementary, Teeland Middle School and Colony High School until this year.
He loved animals and moved spiders instead of killing them, his grandmother said. He loved to play basketball. He and his brother entered prize-winning arts and crafts and cookies at the Alaska State Fair. He helped raise chickens.
Erick lived with his mother near Wasilla. His father has visitation rights on weekends. His mother couldn't be reached for comment.
Rod described Erick as a bit of a wild child but generally respectful. He went to church in the past.
He was getting good grades, his grandmother said, until he made a new friend named Devin Peterson in the summer of 2015.
Peterson is also charged in Grunwald's murder for his role destroying evidence by torching the Bronco and getting rid of the guns involved, according to the grand jury indictment in the case.
Rod said he eventually banned Peterson from visiting because he thought he was a bad influence on his son. Erick stopped coming by very much at that point.
By this summer, Erick wasn't staying with his mother anymore, Rod said. He was basically homeless, moving through "trap houses" that serve as drug-dealing bases in Wasilla, he said. The other teens arrested over the weekend were part of the same group, the Almandingers said.
Sometimes the group would come by to eat and talk. They always wore backpacks.
By late October, Myler and Rod agreed to let Erick stay at the house again. They had to agree to let another teen stay with him.
Rod said he enrolled them at Valley Pathways alternative school and tried to keep them home. When the teens sneaked out to get drunk, he gave them one last chance. The other teen left.
A week later, that teen came back.
David Grunwald gave him a ride over, the Almandingers say.
Turning a blind eye?
Many observers, including some involved in the case, say there's no way somebody at the Almandinger home didn't know something.
Grunwald's parents, Ben and Edie, said during a previous interview that they called Rod a few hours after David didn't come home. He did say his own son wasn't there. He also said something along the lines of, "Those kids are f—-ed."
Asked about that Monday after the interview, Rod said he was worried Edie Grunwald was calling the police and the teens would get in trouble for not being home. He repeated his assertion that he didn't know what had happened at the trailer.
"We had no clue that he left the house," he said.
The night of Nov. 13, Rod said, he assumed Erick and the other teen staying at the house were watching TV in a downstairs bedroom until the teen said Erick wasn't there.
He said he didn't see Grunwald come back or anyone else go to the trailer, which is usually kept locked. He kept trying to reach Erick and finally heard from him at 4 a.m.
Rod said the Grunwalds were worried and looking for David.
"He just said for everybody to just chill," his father recalled. "He's probably just hanging out with somebody else and being late."
Rod said he looked in the trailer once a few days after Grunwald went missing to see if he was hiding there. He poked some sleeping bags but didn't see anything amiss. He didn't see the bloody bathroom where troopers say the pistol-whipping happened.
It was dark in there, he said: "I wasn't looking in the bathroom."
Rod said he also didn't realize the teens on Thanksgiving weekend may have returned to the trailer and doused it in bleach before burning the carpet, as described in court documents. He was away on a trip. He said he locked the door when he saw it had been opened. Erick told him he needed to "get something out" of the trailer. Rod said he assumed that meant some movies and games inside.
The troopers hauled off the trailer as evidence a few days later.
Erick has a court hearing Tuesday. Rod didn't think he'd attend, though he's been visiting his son at Mat-Su Pretrial Facility every other day.
A trooper has told the Almandingers that Erick could be transferred to a prison in the Lower 48 if he's convicted and gets a life sentence. They plan to move closer to him if so.
"He's still our family, even if he's done something horrible," Myler said.