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Accused killer of Palmer teen to stand trial alone

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 18, 2017
  • Published September 18, 2017

PALMER — The four teenagers accused of killing 16-year-old David Grunwald will not face a jury together: A Palmer Superior Court judge has approved a separate trial for at least one.

But the judge who agreed to separate out Erick Almandinger, 17, from among the defendants — Almandinger lived at the Palmer home where the crime reportedly began — has yet to decide on a prosecutor's request for harsh sentencing guidelines if convicted.

The trial in the high-profile case is scheduled for next month, though it is likely to be delayed.

As of Monday, Almandinger was the only of the four murder defendants to request a separate trial. A fifth defendant in the case was charged with evidence tampering but not murder.

Erick Almandinger, right, in court in December. Austin Barrett sits beside him. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Grunwald, a Mat-Su Career and Tech High School student with a clean-cut reputation, came to Almandinger's home on Nov. 13 — the night he was murdered.

Almandinger later told Alaska State Troopers that Grunwald came to drink and smoke marijuana in a trailer behind the main house. Almandinger's father said Grunwald had been over before but the two weren't close friends.

Authorities say Grunwald was pistol-whipped in the trailer behind the house, driven in his own Ford Bronco to the Knik River and shot in the head, according to various court documents. The Bronco was found, burned to its frame, outside Wasilla.

Almandinger was the first arrested, on Dec. 3. He told troopers little about a motive for the murder other than a vague comment, saying Grunwald "smoked all his weed."

Recent court filings in the case revealed some new details.

Several of the teens told different stories about who was involved in the pistol-whipping and who fired the fatal shot, according to the request for a separate trial filed in mid-July by Almandinger's attorney, Jon Iannaccone, with the state Office of Public Advocacy.

One of the defendants, Bradley Renfro, 16, told a friend in a monitored call from jail that Almandinger needed to admit his guilt, according to the document. He also told troopers Almandinger fired the shot.

Another defendant, Austin Barrett, 20, told troopers that Grunwald was using the bathroom in the trailer when Almandinger told the others he planned to rob him and then helped pistol-whip him, the document states. Barrett also said it was Almandinger who shot Grunwald.

And defendant Dominic Johnson, 17, told his mother in a monitored call from jail, "Erick just needs to admit to what he did and stop trying to get us all in trouble for something that he did," the document says.

Iannaccone argued that a combined trial could hurt his chance to cross-examine the other defendants.

The state didn't oppose his motion. Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath granted a separate trial in late July.

Heath, however, is still reviewing Iannaccone's request to dismiss a sentencing "aggravator" sought by Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak based on the contention that Almandinger subjected Grunwald to "substantial physical torture." An aggravator could lead to a harsher sentence than otherwise would be allowed.

Kalytiak filed his intent to seek harsher sentences against the other defendants as well, should they be convicted. Their attorneys so far have filed no opposition paperwork.

In August, Kalytiak filed a memo defending the harsher sentencing guideline in which he calls Almandinger a "wannabe gangbanger" who shot a teen described by friends as "an incredible young man, mature for his age and very responsible."

As he was being driven to the Knik River, badly beaten and drifting in and out of consciousness, Grunwald "knew that he would be killed, as the kidnappers would not consider any of the other options he proposed," Kalytiak wrote. "The mental torture of knowing he was going to die during that 30 minute ride was likely as bad as the physical torture he endured."

The prosecutor said the teens "continued to couch-surf, party and carry on as if nothing had happened" in the days following, while Grunwald's family and friends searched for him.

The searches ended on Dec. 2, when Johnson guided troopers and Kalytiak to the body.

If Almandinger is found guilty, the aggravator comes with a mandatory 99-year sentence with no time off for good behavior, though he would get the chance to apply for a reduced sentence after serving half the term.

The torture aggravator would remove the judge's "ability to consider mitigating circumstances and circumstances of youth before imposing the harshest penalty possible," Iannaccone wrote in his filing.

Edie Grunwald, David's mother, said Monday that the district attorney prepared the family to expect separate trials from the start of the case.

In a phone interview, Grunwald said that while the evidence tampering case could go to trial next month, she doesn't expect the murder trials to start until next year, maybe even a year from now.

She and David's father, Ben, have been attending all the hearings leading up to trial since their son's murder. Now they're ready to attend multiple trials too, she said: "It's absolutely horrible, but what else can you do?"

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