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Crime & Courts

‘They’re not your family’: Jury deliberates fate of first teen on trial for Grunwald slaying

Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak makes his closing argument on Wednesday in the trial of Erick Almandinger, charged with the murder of David Grunwald. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

This story has been updated.

PALMER — The fate of the first of four teenagers accused of killing 16-year-old David Grunwald for no obvious reason moved to the hands of a Palmer jury Wednesday afternoon.

Closing arguments in Palmer Superior Court on Wednesday laid out the stark difference not in the general details of what happened but in the role Erick Almandinger played — and what he was thinking.

The trial began May 14.

Grunwald came to Almandinger's Palmer home the night of Nov. 13, 2016, to smoke marijuana in a camper behind the house, according to testimony during the trial.

Almandinger was there with the three other teen charged when the beating occurred, he told investigators. Grunwald was a popular kid with a curfew that Sunday night. The others came from more troubled homes; several were homeless.

Almandinger said another teen — Dominic Johnson, set for his own murder trial in September — told him to bring out his heavy .40-caliber Ruger because he didn't like Grunwald and wanted to beat him for smoking all of Almandinger's marijuana. Austin Barrett and Brad Renfro are also charged with murder.

Grunwald was beaten with the gun in the camper and then driven, bloody and pleading for his life, in his 1995 Ford Bronco to a remote spot near the Knik River where he was shot and killed, authorities say. The Bronco was torched elsewhere in the Valley.

There's no evidence who fired the fatal shot, investigators testified during the trial.

Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak on Wednesday described Almandinger as a willing participant who ignored multiple chances to reject a series of violent choices and is guilty of murder by Alaska's accomplice liability laws.

He painted Almandinger as the most gang-obsessed member of a group of friends with troubled home lives and access to drugs and guns.

Kalytiak said Almandinger told too many lies to recount, including telling Grunwald's girlfriend he was drunk in Anchorage the night of the murder and his father he hadn't seen Grunwald. He told investigators different stories about who fired the fatal shot.

Almandinger didn't have to "rush out" to the camper with his gun, could have called for help after Grunwald was beaten, and didn't have to get in the Bronco for the 27-minute drive to Knik River Road, Kalytiak said.

"I am confident that you will see that our evidence has told you that this group made a unanimous decision on Nov. 13, 2016, to kill David Grunwald," he said. "And I am confident that that very same evidence will bring you to a unanimous decision that this defendant is absolutely guilty of all these crimes."

Almandinger's court-appointed attorney, public defender Jon Iannaccone, told jurors that Almandinger, scared of losing his friends or maybe his life, kept quiet as the situation spun out of control.

"The contested issue in this trial is what was Erick Almandinger's mental state before David Grunwald was killed?" said Iannaccone, supervising attorney in Kenai for the Office of Public Advocacy. "The answer is Erick went along with it because he was too scared not to."

Almandinger's statements, besides "certain small mistakes," largely matched the evidence in the case, Iannaccone said, including social media messages obtained from the teens' phones and tablets.

Almandinger didn't show the criminal intent for Grunwald to be shot and killed that's part of the murder statute, Iannaccone said.

Rather, he was afraid of his friends and "things got quickly out of hand," he said. The blue clothes he wore and "C" sign for the Crips gang he flashed in photos "was a dress-up game" Almandinger played.

What happened was a story of "a kid who had everything going for him [Grunwald] in a trailer with a kid with nothing going for him," Iannaccone said, referring to Dominic Johnson. "For some irrational reason, the kid with nothing going for him decided he wanted to harm the other kid."

Almandinger cried as his lawyer refuted the prosecutor's contentions that the accused teens were a close-knit group, some of whom Almandinger called family and said he'd die for. He said the group had a falling out in October that year and pointed to a threatening message Johnson sent in late November.

"Erick, they're not your family. They're not even your friends. They used you for marijuana," Iannaccone said. "Your family is your mom, your dad, your grandma."

Almandinger didn't have to physically fire the fatal shot to be found guilty of first-degree murder.

Under accomplice liability laws, Almandinger would still be guilty if he "intended to promote or facilitate" the killing, acted intentionally with the intent Grunwald be killed and aided or abetted his death, according to one of more than 50 instructions Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath read to the jury Wednesday.

But another instruction states Almandinger's presence at the scene doesn't make him legally responsible if he didn't intend for it to happen.

Jurors are weighing similar legal calculations for multiple other charges: second-degree murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, kidnapping, assault, arson, vehicle theft and evidence tampering.

During a break in the proceedings Wednesday, Grunwald's father, Ben, pointed out that if Almandinger was so scared, he could have taken trooper Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn to David's body when the investigator finally found him at home three days after the murder.

"He'd be in protective custody and we wouldn't be going through this bull—- now," Grunwald said.

Deliberations are expected to continue Thursday.

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