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In June, a teen died from a gunshot wound in Wasilla. Now the once-closed case is getting another look.

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 12, 2017

CASWELL LAKES — Relatives say Frank Woodford was a 16-year-old runaway when he died from a gunshot wound in late June.

His death got little attention outside the sphere of law enforcement, friends and family.

Woodford wasn't alone during the shooting, which occurred at a Wasilla home around midnight on June 27, according to an Alaska State Troopers report released by the boy's family this week.

In the room with him that night, according to the report, was 19-year-old Austin Barrett, the oldest of five Valley teenagers now charged in connection with the high-profile death of 16-year-old David Grunwald in November.

The report said 19-year-old Damien Peterson — the older brother of another teen accused in the Grunwald case — was also in the room when Woodford was shot.

Before he died, the report says, Woodford told troopers and medics he didn't shoot himself.

Troopers say they haven't charged anyone in Woodford's death. A section of the report dated Nov. 18 declared the investigation closed due to "no conclusive evidence of foul play."

But the shooting came under review again after Grunwald's death, troopers spokesperson Megan Peters said Thursday.

"New information provided to Troopers regarding Frank Woodford's death prompted investigators to look back at the case," Peters wrote in a late December email. "Troopers will investigate the validity of the information provided. At this time we are not providing details regarding the case as it is under review."

Peters said this week that a trooper who could answer additional questions about the report was in training this week and couldn't be reached.

Woodford's family only got the report last week, relatives said.

Michelle Woodford holds a portrait of her son Frank Woodford in her home in Caswell Lakes on Jan. 2. Frank died in June after being shot. (Zaz Hollander / Alaska Dispatch News)

His mother said she doesn't feel justice has been served, given her son's comments before he died.

"Somebody in that report or somebody is hiding something," Michelle Woodford said by phone Wednesday.

Dying words

The 13-page report includes statements by seven troopers, as well as descriptions of interviews with Peterson and Barrett.

There were numerous people — adults and teens — in the house when the shooting happened, the report indicates.

Trooper Jared Noll — in a report dated Nov. 18 — wrote that Woodford was writhing in pain on a downstairs bedroom floor when troopers and medics arrived. He had a gunshot wound in his chest. There was a Glock handgun on the bed, according to the report.

Noll asked Woodford what happened; the teen said he didn't know, Noll wrote.

"I asked him again and he stated he didn't shoot himself," the report states. "At that point one of the medics … stated 'You are not going to survive (t)his, we need to know what happened."

Woodford repeated that he didn't shoot himself, Noll wrote.

He was taken to Providence Alaska Medical Center, where he died in surgery before 3 a.m., according to the report.

A State Medical Examiner Office autopsy concluded the cause of death was a "perforating gunshot wound to the torso and the manner of death was left undetermined pending investigation," according to a summary in the report by trooper Dennis Dupras, who attended the autopsy.

The pathologist noted recent wounds to Woodford's left hand, left index and middle fingers, and a fresh wound where a piece of flesh was missing above his right wrist, though the report doesn't indicate when those injuries were sustained or whether they were shooting-related.

Woodford was right-handed, his mother said.

Two witnesses, same story

According to the report, Peterson and Barrett both told troopers roughly the same thing in separate interviews: There was a gun on the bed, Woodford picked it up, he got shot.

The gun, a 10mm Glock 20, had been stolen from a Wasilla resident's pickup just days earlier, on June 22, according to the report.

Damien Peterson — the older brother of 18-year-old Devin Peterson, who faces charges in connection with the Grunwald murder case — said he came into the room, jumped on the bed and landed on the gun, according to the report.

He said he checked the chamber and found it empty, and removed the weapon's magazine, which had three bullets inside, the report said; he pointed the gun at a ceiling light fixture and fired, but said the trigger didn't have any "play" in it.

"I twirled the gun around my finger like they do in the old West movies," Peterson told troopers investigator Andrew Adams during a phone interview, according to the report. "Then I put the magazine halfway back into the gun and put it on the bed."

Woodford wanted to touch it, Peterson said, but he told him not to, according to the report. Woodford picked it up again 15 seconds later and Peterson told him to be careful, Peterson told the investigator.

The gun went off four to five minutes later, he said.

Barrett said he and Peterson were playing on a tablet when he saw a flash and heard the bang. Neither he nor Peterson were touching the gun, Barrett told the investigator.

"Everyone came into the room and the adults told everyone to get out so I did," he told Adams during an interview in the investigator's vehicle at 1:45 a.m. the night of the shooting. "I left the residence with Damien until we parted ways a little way down the street."

Adults stay, teens flee

Witnesses at the home told trooper Dugger Cook that a group of young people fled after the shooting, some through the bedroom window, the report states. Most them returned later after a neighbor told them to call troopers, according to the report.

Alanah Peterson speaks following a hearing for her son Devin Peterson on Dec. 13 at Palmer Superior Court. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Damien Peterson was the only one who didn't return, Cook wrote. The trooper drove to the Petersons' Big Lake address and talked with Peterson's mother, Alanah, shortly before 3:30 a.m.

She told the trooper Damien and Devin left the night before in a silver SUV with "multiple other young persons," Cook wrote.

His mother agreed to ask her son to call troopers, and Damien Peterson called 911 about 20 minutes later and was patched through to investigator Adams, Cook wrote.

Barrett told troopers he was living at the Wasilla house where the shooting occurred and Peterson had been staying there for three or four days, the report said. He called Woodford "the runt of the litter" and said he'd been staying at the house longer than him or Peterson.

The adult couple identified as the "property custodian" in the trooper report could not be reached for comment.

The woman told troopers she was giving a young granddaughter a bath upstairs when the shot was fired. The man said he was working on a vehicle outside.

Another relative said the "kids" were hanging out downstairs so she didn't see what happened, but didn't think there was any alcohol involved.

Red flags?

Asked if reopening the Woodford investigation had any connection with the Grunwald murder, the Palmer District Attorney said Thursday he wasn't familiar with the Woodford case because it was never referred to his office and he hasn't been asked to help with the investigation.

"Once individuals get on law enforcement's radar due to their involvement in a major incident, like the killing of David Grunwald, they tend to stay on law enforcement's radar for a while," District Attorney Roman Kalytiak said in an email. "Also, it is not unusual for an investigation into one crime to uncover evidence of other crimes."

Two new criminal cases were opened recently stemming from the investigation into the Grunwald case: child pornography charges against Devin Peterson in late December, and a sexual assault case involving a Fairbanks resident.

Austin Barrett looks around the courtroom on Dec. 13 at Palmer Superior Court. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Barrett was involved in a tight cluster of run-ins with law enforcement around the time of Woodford's death in June, but wasn't jailed long-term until early December on the Grunwald murder charges.

He was arrested June 20 as part of a group of teenagers prowling a Wasilla neighborhood and stealing small items around 3 a.m., according to a sworn affidavit filed by trooper Nicholas Murphy at the Palmer court.

Barrett was charged with misdemeanor theft and trespass and released from the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility on his own recognizance.

A week later, Frank Woodford died.

Two days after that, on June 29, Barrett and both Peterson brothers were arrested in a bizarre kidnapping and assault case that began in Eagle River and ended at a North Jasper Drive address in Wasilla.

Damien Peterson is serving 18 months of felony probation for his role in that case, but charges were never filed against Devin Peterson or Barrett because the victim wasn't entirely credible and couldn't identify them, Kalytiak said in a separate email.

Light ‘nipped out’ too soon

There is no indication Woodford knew David Grunwald, the Palmer teen murdered in mid-November.

Authorities say Grunwald was bludgeoned by a pistol, driven to the Knik River in his Ford Bronco, and shot and killed. Barrett, Bradley Renfro and Dominic Johnson, both 16, and 17-year-old Erick Almandinger have been charged with murder, kidnapping, car theft and arson in that case. Devin Peterson is charged with helping them cover up the crime.

Almandinger told investigators Grunwald came to his Palmer home to smoke marijuana and drink.

Edie and Ben Grunwald meet with reporters following a hearing in their son David Grunwald’s murder case on Dec. 27 in Palmer Superior Court. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Grunwald's parents, Ben and Edie, and supporters are demanding justice in the case. They say the teenager was reliable and home on time every night.

As described by Woodford's mother, Frankie Woodford's last days bore little resemblance to Grunwald's seemingly stable home life.

Michelle Woodford said her son was in foster care, and had run away from his latest home placement. A spokeswoman for the Alaska Office of Children's Services said she could neither confirm nor deny any case because of confidentiality laws.

The troopers' report on Woodford's shooting indicates he was under the supervision of an OCS caseworker.

Michelle Woodford said her parents were hoping to get custody.

Frankie was always helpful and loved anything with a motor — snowmachines, four-wheelers, even heavy equipment he drove with grown-ups as a young child, his mother said.

He visited her home village of Aniak as a child. Later, they spent their time together playing video games or shopping. Frank most recently attended Colony High School, according to the Mat-Su Borough School District.

The last time she saw him was in May, Michelle said. By the time she got to the hospital on June 27, he was in surgery, she said. "I got there and waited just for them to say he was dead."

Her father had a heart attack about a month later, she said. Her mother took up smoking. Michelle started drinking again, but says she's sober now.

Frank Woodford was buried on July 19 after a closed-casket funeral.

"I had a beautiful son," Michelle Woodford said, sitting on a couch earlier this month at the family's Caswell Lakes home and wiping her tears on her T-shirt sleeve. "Everywhere he went, he was a light … nipped out too short."

NOTE: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Frank Woodford attended Valley Pathways School.

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