PALMER — Relatives of 16-year-old Frank Woodford say he should have been in their care before he died, instead of living as a runaway tracked by a state case worker.
Woodford died in late June with a gunshot wound in his chest at a Wasilla house where he was staying, according to court documents.
Damien Peterson, the 19-year-old Big Lake man charged with second-degree murder in Woodford's death, entered a not-guilty plea in Palmer Superior Court on Tuesday. Peterson told others he accidentally shot Woodford, but the only witness told investigators Peterson instructed him to lie and say Woodford shot himself, according to a sworn trooper affidavit.
Troopers, citing a lack of evidence, closed their investigation into the teenager's death last year. They reopened it after another teen, David Grunwald, was found murdered along the Knik River in early December.
The two cases share several connections.
Peterson's 18-year-old brother, Devin, faces charges he helped cover up Grunwald's murder. Another of the five teens charged in the death — 19-year-old Austin Barrett — was the only other person in the room with Damien Peterson when Woodford was shot, court documents say.
Woodford's mother and grandparents sat in the front row Tuesday during Damien Peterson's arraignment hearing, wiping away tears.
Peterson's parents Alanah and Clive sat behind them. Grunwald's mother, Edie, sat next to Michelle Woodford. Grunwald's father, Ben, sat nearby.
Woodford's grandparents wanted custody of him and say they nearly had him home before he died in late June. Court documents indicate he was under a state case worker's supervision at the time of his death.
Barbara Wharton and Dan Ray said they planned for the 16-year-old to live with them and his mother in their Caswell Lakes home.
Instead, he ended up at a house on North Jasper Drive in Wasilla, where numerous teens crashed for brief periods, court documents say.
"They told us he was in a safe place," Wharton said after Tuesday's hearing. "But that safe place was a flophouse."
Woodford's mother and grandmother said he had run away from the foster home where he was staying.
An Office of Children's Services case worker wouldn't tell the family where Woodford was, she said. "We drove around looking for him."
OCS director Christy Lawton did not immediately respond to a request for information about Woodford's case, or the division's policy regarding runaways.
Barrett told investigators Peterson pointed a gun at Woodford's chest and pulled the trigger, according to charging documents in the murder case.
But Peterson's mother said Tuesday she believes it was more likely Barrett did it.
"Damien is not a killer," Alanah Peterson said outside the courtroom before the hearing began. Barrett was "in both places," Peterson said, referring to Woodford and Grunwald's deaths.
Peterson told investigators he was handling the gun before Woodford started playing with it and shot himself, court documents say. His mother said he lied to protect Barrett.
Peterson remains jailed at Goose Creek Correctional Center on $500,000 cash bail with release to a court-appointed third-party custodian. His next court date is in April.