Crime & Courts

‘I killed my friend’: Palmer resident sentenced to serve 99 years for 2016 murder of Mat-Su teen

Erick Almandinger David Grunwald murder

PALMER — Erick Almandinger, the first of four teens charged in the 2016 murder of 16-year-old David Grunwald, was sentenced Monday to serve 99 years in prison for the brutal crime with no clear motive.

Four men who were teenagers at the time — Almandinger, Dominic Johnson, Bradley Renfro and Austin Barrett — were charged in Grunwald’s murder, which sent shockwaves through the Mat-Su community.

Almandinger was the only one in the group who actually knew Grunwald. Both attended Colony High School together.

Grunwald came to Almandinger’s home that mid-November Sunday night and was smoking marijuana with the others in a camper behind the house when they trapped him in the bathroom and pistol-whipped him, according to prior court testimony. Then the teens drove Grunwald, bloodied, half-conscious and pleading for his life, in his Ford Bronco to the Knik River where he was shot and killed.

Prosecutors could not prove who fired the fatal shot. But they argued that Almandinger, who supplied the gun used in the beating and later lied to investigators, could have stopped the others.

The Bronco was torched near the Talkeetna Mountains. Grunwald’s body wasn’t found for 19 days despite a major search effort. The teens partied together in the days after the murder, a witness testified.

[‘No clue’: Family of teen charged in Grunwald killing say they share public’s shock]

Almandinger, whose police interview provided the first grim details of the crime, was the first arrested in December 2016. He was convicted in 2018 on nine charges including murder, kidnapping and arson.

Monday’s hearing was live-streamed for the public, with key participants allowed in the Palmer courtroom. As the hearing neared its end, Almandinger stood to speak. Grunwald’s parents, Ben and Edie Grunwald, left the courtroom.

Almandinger, who cried at times as he spoke, said he wasn’t asking for leniency. He said he didn’t claim the “excuses” -- expert testimony about brain development in young people -- that came up in his defense. He said he killed David Grunwald.

“I claim full responsibility for Dave dying. He was my friend. He was a good kid,” Almandinger said, adding the two would meet up at the start of the school day. “And I killed my friend. That’s what happened. I killed somebody’s nephew. I killed somebody’s son. I destroyed somebody’s family.”

He apologized to the Grunwald family.

“I’m sure the words coming out of my mouth are irrelevant to them,” he said. “But if it means anything I am sorry. I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry for what I didn’t do.”

Prosecutor Melissa Howard said Almandinger has repeatedly violated jail rules, including being caught with a homemade knife and fighting with another inmate. In 2019, he assaulted a correctional officer, Howard said.

Retired Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath, who has presided over all the Grunwald hearings, referenced the “especially devastating” and baffling nature of the crime in handing down the sentence, saying it wasn’t an impulsive shooting or gang fight or drug deal gone bad, though it may have been some kind of gang initiation.

“Mr. Almandinger was the only one that really knew David. He knew him as a friend as he stated. Why he would turn on a friend is beyond me,” Heath said. “I really don’t understand it. He had done nothing wrong. For whatever reason, he chose to turn on him.”

The judge did leave room for discretionary parole, saying Almandinger would be a little over 50 at the time of his first possible parole board hearing should he become eligible.

Two others have already been sentenced: Johnson, sentenced to serve 99 years; and Barrett, who reached a plea agreement to serve 45 years after Heath dismissed a murder indictment against him after ruling troopers violated his right to remain silent during an interview. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Barrett said he fired the fatal shot in a jailhouse phone call with his grandmother that was played in the courtroom on Monday.

Austin Barrett, David Grunwald murder trial

Grunwald’s family, including a grandmother whose doctor blamed her heart problems on the stress of the murder, asked for the maximum possible sentence with no parole during Monday’s hearing.

Edie Grunwald called Almandinger, the “ringleader” in the murder. She put up a poster-sized photo of her son’s body frozen to the ground. He had over 34 bruises and deep gashes in his scalp.

Ben Grunwald said the murder couldn’t have happened without Almandinger’s involvement.

“I don’t come here seeking justice today,” he said. “I come here seeking punishment.”

The four charged in the murder have been incarcerated since December 2016. Along with pandemic restrictions, Almandinger’s sentencing was delayed by a request for a psychological evaluation. Renfro’s sentencing is scheduled next.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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