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Crime & Courts

Defendant who helped troopers find body gets 99 years in prison for Mat-Su teen’s 2016 murder

Dominic Johnson talks with his lawyer, Lyle Stohler, before closing arguments in his murder trial Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018 in Palmer. Johnson was convicted of murder in the November 2016 killing of teenager David Grunwald. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

PALMER — Dominic Johnson instigated the brutal beating that preceded 16-year-old David Grunwald’s execution near the Knik River in November 2016.

But Johnson was also the only one of the four teens later convicted in Grunwald’s murder to lead authorities to the area near the Knik River where the teen’s body lay 19 days.

That assistance didn’t end up earning him a lighter sentence.

On Wednesday, Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath sentenced Johnson to serve a total of 99 years in prison — the maximum sentence for murder, with 20 years suspended, but also another 20 years for kidnapping, assault and other charges.

Johnson, through his attorney, verbally agreed to show authorities the body in exchange for not making any statements, Heath said. But the judge determined whatever help Johnson provided didn’t outweigh his role in a “brutal execution with no reason whatsoever.”

Johnson’s age, 16 at the time, also didn’t factor into Heath’s decision.

“There was something off in all four of these young people,” said the judge, describing Johnson’s desire to do violence. “I don’t know what motivated him to do that but it was not normal. And it was flat-out scary.”

Grunwald’s family and prosecutors had urged Heath to impose the maximum sentences given Johnson’s actions and lack of remorse. His attorney, arguing Johnson was a youthful offender who helped authorities, requested a 70-year sentence on the murder charge, with 30 to serve.

Johnson apologized to Grunwald’s parents, Ben and Edie, before the sentence was handed down.

“I am very sorry for the pain I’ve caused the Grunwalds and I wish every day I could go back and do things differently,” he said.

The couple didn’t hear him. They left the courtroom before Johnson spoke.

“We’re not staying,” Ben Grunwald said. “I don’t want to hear it, any lies, any BS. I don’t want to hear a word out of his mouth.”

Edie Grunwald holds a board with a photo of her son David Grunwald outside a Palmer courtroom on February 5, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

All teenagers at the time, the four — Johnson, Erick Almandinger, Bradley Renfro and Austin Barrett — were convicted of murder, kidnapping, assault, arson and other charges, Barrett through a plea deal. He was sentenced to 45 years in November. Courthouse COVID-19 restrictions have delayed Almandinger and Renfro’s sentencing hearings.

A motive in the killing has never been made clear. Prosecutors also couldn’t prove who fired the fatal shot.

Hours before the murder, Johnson was captured on video saying something about hitting someone “as hard as I can in the head, just to try to hurt him.”

Later, while Grunwald smoked marijuana in a trailer behind Almandinger’s home, Johnson messaged Almandinger to bring a heavy gun right away. Grunwald was locked in the tiny bathroom, then pistol-whipped in the dark when he emerged.

The four drove Grunwald in his Ford Bronco to the Knik River and walked him into the woods where he was shot and killed. The Bronco was torched near the Talkeetna Mountains.

His body wasn’t found for 19 days until Johnson led Alaska State Troopers to the general area, though not the specific spot.

Wednesday’s hearing was held in person at Palmer’s courthouse, but with limited capacity. Grunwald’s parents and Johnson’s grandmother attended.

Lyle Stohler, his attorney, described Johnson’s “chaotic” home life as he encouraged Heath’s sentencing decision to reflect his client’s age and help finding Grunwald’s body.

Johnson, who “doesn’t know who his father is,” was raised by his grandmother until he was 12, when he moved in with his mother before getting kicked out of the house at 16, Stohler said. He spent Thanksgiving Day after the murder not at home but at the Carrs store in Palmer, using free Wi-Fi.

Prosecutors have described his client as spending the time around the murder partying.

“Getting drunk, smoking marijuana, couch surfing. Sleeping in sheds in below freezing temperatures is not what I would describe as partying,” Stohler said. “That’s being homeless.”

Grunwald’s family testified to the pain of their loss.

Her son spent that same Thanksgiving Day “out there,” Edie Grunwald told Johnson during Wednesday’s hearing, referring to the remote spot near the Knik River. “Frostbit to the ground.”

Her own difficult upbringing amid what she described as extreme family violence that included her father’s murder when she was 11 did not lead her or her siblings to commit crimes, Grunwald said.

“Many young people have horrendous childhoods and make the right decisions,” she said. “Mr. Johnson learned the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately, he instigated a night of violence. He pursued a night of torture and murder.”

Johnson’s sentencing parameters fell under Senate Bill 91, the controversial criminal justice reform bill that was repealed and replaced in 2019. He’ll be eligible for mandatory parole after 66 years.

He’ll be eligible for discretionary parole after 36 years if he behaves like a model prisoner, Heath said, adding that provision is how he’s addressing any potential for rehabilitation.

“Mr. Johnson, I hope you take advantage of the opportunity to salvage something in your life,” he said.

Heath is retired but continues to preside over the Grunwald cases.

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