PALMER -- Dominic Johnson didn’t flinch as a Palmer Superior Court jury on Thursday convicted him of first-degree murder for brutally beating and then shooting 16-year-old David Grunwald two years ago.
His grandmother burst into tears.
The jury also handed down guilty verdicts against 18-year-old Johnson, the second of four teens accused of killing Grunwald, on the other charges against him: kidnapping, arson, assault, vehicle theft and destroying evidence.
Another teen, 19-year-old Erick Almandinger, was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges by a Palmer jury in May. Two more defendants, Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro, face future trials.
Grunwald was killed on Nov. 13, 2016.
The case drew national attention with its grim look at the underside of teen life in small-town Palmer and young defendants displaying little if any motive.
Grunwald, described by prosecutors as a popular 16-year-old with a bright future and stable family, spent his last hours smoking marijuana with a group of teens portrayed during court proceedings as sporadically homeless, fascinated by the Crips gang and supplied with home-grown cannabis and stolen guns. The group attended Colony High School together at one time.
Johnson and three others are accused of beating Grunwald with a .40-caliber Ruger at a camper behind Almandinger’s Palmer home and then driving him, bloodied and half-conscious, to a remote spot near the Knik River in his own 1995 Ford Bronco before shooting him once in the head and then torching the Bronco across the Valley.
It was Johnson who led investigators to the area of the body nearly three weeks later.
The verdict Thursday came just before 3 p.m. Deliberations began at about that time Wednesday.
Ben and Edie Grunwald, David’s parents, attended the four-week trial after sitting through the Almandinger proceedings earlier this year. Along with grim witness testimony of the details of the murder, both trials included photos of their son’s body, frozen after several weeks left on the ground near the Knik River.
Their son’s girlfriend, Victoria Mokelke, sat between them as the verdict was read. Their faces didn’t change, though Mokelke later looked up at Ben Grunwald and gave him a small smile.
“It’s a relief,” Edie Grunwald said after the courtroom emptied. “This one was a pretty rough trial.”
The trial was different from Almandinger’s, Grunwald said, because it was “drawn out” and interrupted by delays and surprises. A video that investigators sought for almost two years, showing Johnson talking about hurting someone by hitting them on the head, didn’t surface until the last weeks of the trial.
Lyle Stohler, Johnson’s court-appointed attorney, peppered the proceedings with frequent objections.
Stohler said after the verdict that he plans to appeal the decision. He said there were numerous grounds, including Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath’s denial of a motion to move the trial out of Palmer.
During closing arguments, even Stohler admitted his client beat Grunwald on the head, kidnapped him and set Grunwald’s Ford Bronco on fire. But he told the jury that Johnson got out of the Bronco before the fatal shot was fired and was picked up after the killing as he walked the Old Glenn Highway and continued on with the group.
Prosecutors said that was ridiculous, and pointed to other evidence against Johnson including a brief Snapchat video showing him talking about hitting someone “as hard as I can in the head, just to try to hurt him.” His mother, Misty Johnson, also sent text messages about getting rid of her son’s bloody hoodie, apparently from the night of the murder.
Other evidence presented during the four-week trial included autopsy results that indicated nearly 20 defensive wounds on Grunwald’s hands and forearms, suffered while he tried to fend off blows. Along with the fatal gunshot wound at his hairline, there were seven blunt-force injuries on his head.
Under Alaska’s accomplice liability statutes, Johnson could have been found guilty of murder or other crimes even if he didn’t personally shoot Grunwald but one of the other defendants did and he intended to “promote or facilitate” the act, acted with the intent of killing Grunwald, and helped plan the crime.
Heath thanked the jury for their service, which spanned the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I know it’s been a long, long process,” he told them.
Johnson didn’t appear to react throughout the trial, and said little during Thursday’s proceeding, replying with one-word “yes” or “no” answers to Heath’s questions.
His grandmother, Debbie Johnson-Carlson, began to cry as soon as the murder conviction was read. She continued to sob, her shoulders shaking, as the proceedings finished.
As people filed out after the verdict was read, Johnson stood. A court services officer put him back in handcuffs and led him out of the room.