PALMER — The youngest of four teens arrested for the 2016 murder of 16-year-old David Grunwald was sentenced in a Palmer courtroom Wednesday to serve 75 years in prison.
Bradley Renfro, now 21, received less prison time than two others already sentenced to serve 99 years on prior convictions. A fourth is serving 45 years in a plea deal.
The hearing, livestreamed for the public with only key participants in the room, marked the end of a case that galvanized public attention and shocked the community with a sordid look at teen life in Mat-Su.
Grunwald was pistol-whipped in a camper behind a Palmer home in November 2016, then taken in his Ford Bronco to the Knik River and shot. The Bronco was found torched at the foot of the Talkeetna Mountains. His body was found several weeks later after an extensive search.
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.
A clear motive in the crime never surfaced in court.
Renfro was part of the group of gang-obsessed teens who acted together, prosecutors said. They applied the legal theory of accomplice liability to argue he was guilty of killing Grunwald because he chose to participate rather than leave.
District Attorney Melissa Howard last week said Renfro was “100% involved” in Grunwald’s death, suggesting places to kill him and helping get gas cans to burn the Bronco.
Renfro’s attorney, Chris Provost, said Renfro was different from the others. Provost cited Renfro’s fear of them, substance abuse issues and a difficult childhood involving an alcoholic parent, an ADHD diagnosis at the age of 5, and exposure to domestic violence.
There was no evidence Renfro knew what was going to happen or actively participated in the initial assault, retired Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath said during the hearing Wednesday. A jury did not convict him on assault charges during his 2019 trial in Fairbanks.
Renfro, however, was “willingly a participant once the beating ended.”
He will be eligible for discretionary parole when he is 51, the judge said.
Heath acknowledged the realities of Renfro’s challenging adolescence.
“But again, I come back to, why would you participate in an execution? That is just beyond the normal of what a dysfunctional kid gets involved in,” he said. “It is such a rare event. And it takes just some darkness that those boys ... all had.”
The four teens were arrested in December 2016 in connection with the killing.
Erick Almandinger and Dominic Johnson, now both 22, were sentenced to serve 99 years with a chance of discretionary parole after about 35 years. Grunwald knew Almandinger — another friend testified he came over to smoke marijuana and play video games that summer — but not the others.
A fourth, 25-year-old Austin Barrett, received a sentence of 45 years in a plea deal.
Another person who helped the group after the murder, Devin Peterson, now 24, was sentenced to six years in a plea deal on charges of evidence tampering and hindering prosecution.
Prosecutors couldn’t prove who fired the fatal shot. Barrett, in a jailhouse call with his grandmother played last week in court, identified himself as the shooter but decided not to testify during Almandinger and Renfro’s sentencings over his fear of new federal charges.
Renfro lied repeatedly to investigators after Grunwald disappeared in mid-November, according to testimony during his 2019 trial. He also contemplated wearing a wire in late November 2016, before any arrests were made, but was too frightened of retribution, according to hearing testimony.
Parents Ben and Edie Grunwald, as well as other family members, asked Heath to give Renfro the maximum sentence. Grunwald’s aunt described the “haunting” looks on their faces after their son’s death and the image of Edie Grunwald carefully ironing a white T-shirt for his burial.
Renfro’s father and Grunwald’s father nearly came to blows outside the courtroom during a 2017 hearing. Renfro had a brief outburst as he left the group’s first hearing in 2016.
Renfro, who is incarcerated at Goose Creek Correctional Center, was sentenced to a total of 90 years on murder charges, with 30 suspended, as well as 15 years combined for kidnapping and evidence tampering. He was also sentenced to pay $5,000 in fines on arson and vehicle theft charges.
Edie Grunwald, in a message after the hearing ended, said the sentencing was “okay given the circumstances. I think the judge was fair.”