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Crime & Courts

Fourth defendant pleads guilty to David Grunwald murder

Austin Barrett appears in Palmer court on February 5, 2020. His lawyer Craig Howard is at right. Barrett pled guilty Wednesday after a plea agreement. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

The fourth and final Mat-Su teen charged in the 2016 murder of 16-year-old David Grunwald accepted a plea agreement Wednesday morning that will likely place him behind bars for the next 15 to 30 years.

The hearing comes about a month after a Palmer judge dismissed the indictment against now-22-year-old Austin Barrett because troopers violated his right to remain silent during an interview. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Wednesday.

Juries convicted Erick Almandinger, Dominic Johnson and Bradley Renfro of first-degree murder, but none have been sentenced yet.

In November of 2016, Grunwald was beaten in a trailer behind a Palmer home and then driven to the Knik River in his Ford Bronco, where he was shot and killed. The Bronco was found torched the next day near the Talkeetna Mountains, although Grunwald’s body was not found for more than two weeks.

It’s still unclear why the teens killed Grunwald.

Barrett, who was 19 at the time, was named by two of the other defendants as the shooter.

Edie Grunwald holds a board with a photo of her son David Grunwald outside a Palmer courtroom on February 5, 2020. Austin Barrett pled guilty after a plea agreement Wednesday. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

Grunwald’s mother, Edie, hung a large poster with a smiling photo of her son along the courtroom wall Wednesday morning. She was greeted by rows of friends, family and supporters, many donning matching blue “Justice for David” T-shirts.

None of Barrett’s family members appeared in the courtroom.

After more than three years, Edie Grunwald said Wednesday was “one more step closer to closure.” She was surprised, especially after Barrett’s indictment was dismissed, that he chose to plead guilty.

“The fact that he would come forward and go ahead and plead guilty and waive a lot of his rights and accept responsibility, be held accountable -- that says a lot,” Edie Grunwald said.

Barrett initially talked to investigators but later invoked his right to stay silent when he told Alaska State Troopers he was going to “plead the fifth.” Judge Gregory Heath ruled that statements he made after that were not allowed to be used in court and dismissed the indictment last month.

Edie Grunwald said she misses her son everyday. It’s hard watching his friends graduate from high school and start working or going to college.

“I do have a lot of the positive memories, but there’s still a lot of hurt,” she said. “You know, we can’t go into his room and it’s certain foods that he would like or certain restaurants that he likes — just the whole gamut. You know, I love remembering him and I always want to remember him.”

Barrett was not sentenced Wednesday, although the plea agreement calls for him to serve 45 years in prison. With parole and good time, he will likely spend between 15 and 30 years behind bars, his attorney said. He will likely be sentenced this fall.

After sitting through three murder trials, Edie Grunwald said she’s become accustomed to waiting for justice.

“We’re OK if it takes another 10 years,” she said. “I suspect that we’re going to be dealing with appeals on the other three and one of the good things about a plea bargain is that there’s no appeals that you have to deal with. He can press forward with his sentence and his life and getting ready for his next phase in life and we can put that part behind us and then concentrate on the next three.”