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Crime & Courts

‘That was the last time’: David Grunwald’s final moments play out in social media messages

Erick Almandinger at his murder trial in the Palmer courthouse on May 14. Almandinger is the first of four teens to stand trial for the November 2016 murder of 16-year-old David Grunwald. (Bill Roth / ADN)

PALMER — The teenagers accused of killing 16-year-old David Grunwald left a blatant social media trail leading up to the crime on Nov. 13, 2016 — and for days later.

Grunwald, too, left a track of digital signals before and after he died that Sunday night.

Investigators testifying this week at the Palmer Superior Court trial of 18-year-old Erick Almandinger say they immediately started to target the phones and tablets that almost all teenagers carry.

Grunwald came to Almandinger's Palmer home the night of Nov. 13 to smoke and drink in a camper behind the house, according to court testimony. Authorities say he was pistol-whipped in a camper behind the house and loaded, bloody and half-conscious, into his own 1995 Ford Bronco for a drive to a remote spot near the Knik River where he was shot in the head and killed.

The Bronco was found torched near the Talkeetna Mountains the next day. His body was found on Dec. 2.

Almandinger is the first of four teens charged with murder to stand trial.

Prosecutors say Almandinger is guilty by association. Almandinger's attorney says he burned the Bronco but didn't commit the murder.

Dominic Johnson, Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro are also charged. Johnson's trial is scheduled for September. Devin Peterson, 19, faces an August sentencing hearing for a plea deal on charges he hid weapons and provided gas cans to burn the Bronco.

Evidence in the trial so far depicts a group of loosely supervised teens with easy access to marijuana — Almandinger's father grew it, witnesses say — and a fascination with guns and the Crips gang.

Grunwald, a "good kid" with a steady girlfriend and ambitions to be a pilot, had been to Almandinger's at least twice before to smoke marijuana and play video games, friend David Evans testified last week. On one visit, Almandinger showed Grunwald the gun that prosecutors say was later used to pistol-whip him before he was shot and killed.

The digital investigation started the day after Grunwald disappeared.

A Samsung Galaxy tablet seized at Almandinger's home yielded Facebook messages between Almandinger and Johnson from the night Grunwald died, Trooper Dustin Jorgensen testified Wednesday.

Johnson tells Almandinger "we're at the camper" at 6:22 p.m., according to messages read into the record by Jorgensen, an investigator with the troopers' technical crimes unit. Almandinger tells Johnson he doesn't want to go outside and tip off his father that the other teens are in the camper.

Grunwald got to Almandinger's at around 6:40 p.m., according to a timeline presented Wednesday.

A teenage girl who met Grunwald a week before he died emailed him around 7 p.m.

Angela Dicus, now 20 and a day care worker, testified Tuesday that she asked what he was doing.

"Smokin a 'j'", Grunwald responded, using slang for a marijuana joint. Investigators say he was in the camper by then.

Grunwald asked for her Snapchat information and sent a message that night, she said, but she was asleep and didn't open it. She never heard from him again.

"That was the last time," she said.

Around 8:10 that night, according to Facebook messages, Johnson asks Almandinger for his "toolie" — a Ruger .40-caliber pistol — and offers $80 to use it. Almandinger hedges and says they can talk in person later.

Johnson replies he can't talk in person and asks, "do you wanna be let in on something"? He tells him to swear not to tell anyone else.

"I gotta act fast like (right now) fast you feel me," Johnson wrote at 8:16 p.m.

They agree a minute later to talk via Snapchat, a social media platform that automatically deletes messages.

Almandinger later told investigators he brought the gun to Johnson in the camper. Prosecutors say that's the gun that was used to beat Grunwald.

Johnson's mother testified Tuesday she heard her son on a video saying something like "yeah, I hit him hard" but didn't hear him say anything about Grunwald.

Photos obtained from Almandinger's tablet included a photo of him with the word "Killahs" superimposed over it, investigators say.

The teens communicated regularly via social media in the days after Grunwald was killed, Jorgensen testified. A few days later, Almandinger posted a missing poster but also searched the Etsy online shopping site for "unique Crip-related items."

Almandinger told Peterson the investigators "literally have nothing and think they can get me (to) say I did some s—" he didn't do, according to records pulled from Peterson's Facebook account. "F— with a 16 yo genius see what happens (he inserted a smiley emoji) when youre smarter than the (cops)."

The teens deleted numerous other messages, Jorgensen testified.

The "huge" amount of social media records pulled from those and other devices was the largest volume of his career, he said.

Troopers also investigated an "overwhelming" amount of location data from phones and tablets between Nov. 13 and Dec. 2, Trooper Nathan Bucknall testified Tuesday. He put other cases aside to focus on this one.

The data collected the night of the murder showed Almandinger, Johnson, Barrett, Renfro and Grunwald all together in Palmer, Bucknall said. Then Grunwald's signal went dark and just the four other teens appeared to move to Butte and the Knik and then the area where the Bronco was found. Peterson's signal was picked up in the area of his mother's house near Big Lake.

Grunwald's "last successful connection" was at 8:35 p.m. Nov. 13, Bucknall said. After that, the phone wasn't connecting to the network anymore.

Investigators say the teen defendants broke Grunwald's phone and tossed it out the window on the way to Knik River Road.

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