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Murder trial for first teen charged in Grunwald slaying begins in Palmer

Edie Grunwald, second from left, mother of David Grunwald, listens to opening statements in the murder trial of Erick Almandinger in the Palmer courthouse on Monday.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

PALMER – The week after her son was supposed to graduate high school, David Grunwald's mother sat in a Palmer courtroom with a box of tissues on her lap, looking at a photo of his frozen body where it was found near the Knik River in 2016.

The trial for the first of four teenagers charged with beating, kidnapping and killing 16-year-old Grunwald began in Palmer Superior Court on Monday.

Erick Almandinger, right, enters the courtroom after a break during the opening statements in his murder trial at the Palmer courthouse on Monday.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

Erick Almandinger, now 18, faces charges of murder and kidnapping. His trial is expected to last through the month.

The state's argument hinges on whether a jury finds Almandinger guilty by association. Prosecutors say he was part of a group that did the crime. His public defender says Almandinger was too scared to stop the others.

Grunwald, a good-looking teen with a clean-cut reputation and military family, was bludgeoned with a pistol at a camping trailer behind the Almandinger house in Palmer. Then he was shot and killed in a remote spot along the Knik River.

His torched 1995 Ford Bronco was found the next day at the base of the Talkeetna Mountains. It was nearly three weeks before his body was found.

Almandinger later told Alaska State Troopers that Grunwald came to his house to drink and smoke marijuana before the killing.

Three other suspects besides Almandinger charged in Grunwald's death — Dominic Johnson, Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro — face separate trials starting later this year. A fourth, Devin Peterson, is scheduled to be sentenced on evidence tampering charges in August.

Showing photos of Almandinger flashing gang signs and wearing the light blue colors associated with the Crips gang, Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak painted him as a wannabe gang member who lied, covered up crimes and took part in a "total group effort" to ambush, torture, kidnap and kill Grunwald.

Almandinger should be held accountable for the murder under an Alaska statute that makes people legally accountable if they aid or abet the planning and commission of a crime, Kalytiak said.

Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak speaks to the jury during his opening statement in the murder trial of Erick Almandinger in Palmer on Monday.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

Almandinger's court-appointed attorney, Jon Iannaccone, told the jury two distinct and very different groups of friends converged on Almandinger's house the night of the murder: the "all-American" Grunwald with his stable home and bank account, and the occasionally homeless trio of teen boys with family problems and a fondness for gangs and guns.

The one thing they have in common? Iannaccone asked. "They like Erick's marijuana."

Almandinger's father, Rodney, grew marijuana at the time, court documents say.

But his client didn't commit the murder, Iannaccone said. He said Johnson did the beating with Barrett's help and Barrett did the shooting.

Defense attorney Jon Iannaccone speaks to the jury while making his opening statement during murder trial of Erick Almandinger in the Palmer on Monday.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

Johnson, in the trailer, asked Almandinger to bring his heavy .40 caliber Ruger from the house, according to messages exchanged between the two.

Almandinger wrote "makes me kind of sketch," Iannaccone said. "If anything happens you are not gonna be involved and you're gonna get it back," Iannaccone read Johnson's response, repeating it three times for effect as he addressed different members of the jury.

Iannaccone said that Almandinger did commit crimes after the murder, including burning the Bronco and lying to investigators.

He didn't stop the crime because he was intimidated by the larger Johnson and older Barrett, he said. "He was too scared to stop it."

Monday's proceedings involved grisly details not publicly aired before: prosecutors say Grunwald was pistol-whipped as he emerged from the camper's tiny bathroom and then helped his abductors find the right key for the Bronco from the back seat, semi-conscious and bleeding from numerous head wounds.

Alaska State Troopers Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn, the lead investigator in the David Grunwald murder, testifies during the Erick Almandinger trial at the Palmer courthouse on Monday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

It wasn't until Dec. 2 that Johnson and his private attorney led troopers Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn and Kalytiak to the area where they found Grunwald's body as darkness descended and snow fell.

In exchange, Wegrzyn testified Monday, Johnson was told his cooperation could be noted during sentencing if he's convicted.

Almandinger appeared in court wearing a white button-up shirt and black pants. His handcuffs were removed before the jury entered the room.

Grunwald's mother, Edie, sat through the opening statements that included displays of her son's body. His father, Ben, didn't come into the courtroom until after they ended.

A paralegal with the Palmer District Attorney's office leaned over to Edie Grunwald at the hearing's start and asked if she wanted to see the photos beforehand.

"Nope," she said.

David Grunwald’s girlfriend Victoria Mokelke testifies in the murder trial of Erick Almandinger at the Palmer courthouse on Monday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Grunwald's girlfriend testified about the increasingly panicked, sleepless hours and days she spent after he disappeared Nov. 13, 2016.

The last time she saw him, Victoria Mokelke told the jury in her at-times tearful testimony, Grunwald told her he might hang out at Almandinger's after dropping her off at her father's house. He had dropped another teen, David Evans, at Almandinger's earlier.

Mokelke said she "vaguely" knew Almandinger from studying at Colony High School with Grunwald. She didn't know the other teens charged in the murder.

Mokelke said she found Almandinger and Evans on Facebook and pleaded for information about where he was. Almandinger told her he hadn't seen him.

Several days later, she sent Almandinger another message at 4 a.m.: "I haven't slept in days… I'm completely heartbroken and lost. I just want to know if my baby is safe," Mokelke read, sobbing.

Almandinger replied that "the cops" had all his information and he wasn't going to sit around for an hour explaining it, she said.

Correction: This story was updated to make it clear Victoria Mokelke was not with David Grunwald when he dropped David Evans at Erick Almandinger's house. 

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