A Fairbanks jury on Tuesday handed down a first-degree murder conviction against the third teen to be found guilty in the slaying of a popular Palmer 16-year-old in 2016.
Authorities say David Grunwald came to one teenager’s Palmer home to smoke marijuana on a chilly Sunday night in November that year. But for reasons that remain unclear, Grunwald was bludgeoned with a heavy pistol before being driven in his Ford Bronco to a spot near the Knik River and fatally shot in the head. The Bronco was found torched the next day near the Talkeetna Mountains.
Bradley Renfro was one of four teens with Grunwald that night.
During his five-week trial in Fairbanks, the 19-year-old Renfro told jurors he didn’t beat or murder Grunwald but stayed with the group because he was afraid they’d come after him.
The jury found Renfro guilty of first- and second-degree murder, felony murder, evidence tampering, vehicle theft and arson. Their deliberations had included the element of duress added by the defense to a number of charges, which could have led to a not guilty finding.
The jury found him not guilty on just one count, and not one that included the duress element: assault.
This was the first Grunwald murder trial held in Fairbanks after attorneys successfully argued an impartial jury would be hard to seat in Palmer. The trial was streamed by KTVA 11 News.
Two of the others have already been convicted: Erick Almandinger — the beating occurred in a camper behind his house, with his gun, and his tablet contained damning messages — and Dominic Johnson, who messaged Almandinger about some kind of plan and asked for his gun before the beating.
Renfro testified that another teen — Austin Barrett, 19 at the time, the oldest in the group, and a party to another murder earlier that summer — threatened to come after him if he told anyone what happened. Barrett faces his own trial next year.
Prosecutors say Renfro was part of the group of gang-obsessed teens who acted together. They applied the legal theory of accomplice liability to argue Renfro was guilty of killing Grunwald because he chose to participate rather than leave.
Renfro testified he didn’t know about any plan to beat Grunwald before it happened — he testified that Johnson did the pistol-whipping — and went along with the others because he couldn’t leave. Renfro admitted he burned the Bronco.
The case galvanized public attention with its sordid look at the grim underside of teen life in Mat-Su.
Grunwald came from a military family who held him to a strict curfew. The others came from more troubled homes and struggled to stay in school. Several weren’t living at home when the murder happened. Grunwald knew Almandinger — another friend testified he came over to smoke marijuana and play video games that summer — but not the others.
Grunwald’s parents, Ben and Edie, held hands as they waited for the reading of the verdict.
Afterward, Edie Grunwald said in a message that the couple was relieved.
“It has been 2 years and almost 11 months ... slow for justice, but we are getting there,” she wrote.
Renfro was the only defendant so far to take the stand in his own defense, telling jurors over a period of several days what he contended was the true story: For reasons still unclear, Johnson pistol-whipped Grunwald so violently that the group decided he had to be killed. Renfro said it was Barrett who fired the fatal shot.
He admitted he’d lied to investigators several times before his arrest in December 2016, and said he made up stories because he was afraid of Barrett.
On the stand, he was almost unfailingly polite, speaking in a quiet voice through several days of testimony.
But Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak last week without the jury in the room replayed profanity-laced jailhouse phone calls Renfro had during the trial with his mother and stepmother in which he called the prosecutor a derogatory name, joked about herpes, and used a louder, more strident voice than the one he used in court. Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath decided not to let the jury hear the tapes.
Heath, who participated in the verdict by phone from Palmer, thanked the jury for their work.
“Each of these jurors were extremely dedicated to this process,” he said.
As the verdict was read, neither Grunwald’s parents nor Renfro showed any reaction.
As the jury filed out, the attorneys and audience stood up in observance of a long-held courtroom rule that shows courtesy and respect.
Renfro stayed in his chair.