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‘... As hard as I can in the head’: Words of accused Grunwald killer just hours before teen died

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: December 19, 2018
  • Published December 19, 2018

Dominic Johnson, the second of four teens who have been charged with murdering David Grunwald in November 2016 to go to trial, sits in a Palmer courtroom during the opening day of his his murder trial on Nov. 26, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

PALMER — A video made just hours before someone savagely pistol-whipped and then fatally shot 16-year-old David Grunwald shows Dominic Johnson talking about hitting someone in the head “just to try to hurt him.”

Johnson, 18, faces murder, kidnapping and other charges in Grunwald’s death two years ago.

The video, sought by prosecutors for almost two years, surfaced just last week as the Palmer Superior Court trial that began in late November continues.

The brief Snapchat clip was dated Nov. 13, 2016 – the day Grunwald died of a single gunshot to the head at a remote spot near the Knik River after a pistol-whipping in a camper-trailer behind a Palmer home where, investigators say, he had been smoking marijuana with a group of teen boys.

The beating and shooting occurred between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., according to Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak.

The video, played for the jury Wednesday, was time-stamped 5:26 p.m.

It shows Johnson sitting in a shed behind her house near Palmer, fiddling with a “dab” container that holds the waxy concentrated dose of cannabis, a teenage girl testified. Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath asked media not to record or identify the girl because she is a minor.

The video came off the girl’s phone.

The clip shown in court starts with background noise, then Johnson can be heard talking, apparently in mid-sentence: “... as hard as I can in the head, just to try to hurt him.”

Someone else laughs and repeats his last line.

Nobody says Grunwald’s name.

Less than 30 minutes later, Johnson and two other teen defendants in the murder case tell Erick Almandinger they’re walking to his house, according to other evidence presented Wednesday.

Almandinger, who knew Grunwald from their time together at Colony High School, was convicted of his murder by a Palmer Superior Court jury in May. Grunwald, who grew up in a military family and has been depicted as a “good kid” with an occasional marijuana habit, didn’t know the other teens as well.

16-year-old David Grunwald (Photo courtesy of Edith Grunwald)

Investigators say Grunwald was bludgeoned in the head with Almandinger’s heavy Ruger pistol in the trailer behind Almandinger’s house.

Johnson sent a series of messages to Almandinger asking him bring the gun to the trailer “fast,” according to evidence presented at both trials. Grunwald was locked in the tiny bathroom, then pistol-whipped in the dark when he emerged.

Almandinger later told investigators Johnson said Grunwald needed to be killed because he knew too much. So, he said, the teens drove Grunwald to the Knik as he pleaded for his life, and then shot him.

Testimony hasn’t established whether Johnson knew Grunwald would be at Almandinger’s house. But his friend David Evans called him at 5:33 p.m. that Sunday, according to phone logs described by a state expert Tuesday.

Grunwald dropped off Evans at Almandinger’s that night. Evans told him to come by later to “hang out” as they had a few times before, smoking marijuana and playing video games. Almandinger told investigators that Johnson didn’t like Grunwald, and that night was angry that Grunwald had smoked all of Almandinger’s marijuana.

Johnson’s court-appointed attorney, Lyle Stohler, questioned the teen girl who saved the Snapchat video on her phone. She had testified that she didn’t remember filming it, though her sometimes boyfriend Bradley Renfro, another defendant, also used her phone.

“You didn’t hear anybody specifically named in the video, did you?” Stohler asked. She said no. “You didn’t hear anybody specifically say they wanted to kill somebody?”

“No,” she said.

The video wasn’t presented before because prosecutors didn’t have it until last week.

Investigators knew about it, however, after they intercepted messages between Johnson’s mother, Misty, and her boyfriend.

Misty Johnson’s texts describe getting rid of bloody clothes her son brought home, according to messages read to the jury Tuesday by Brittany Johnson, a criminal justice technician with the Alaska State Troopers.

But she also talks about “something else that has surfaced that’s very very very bad,” the technician said, reading back the text. She tells her boyfriend that she’ll have to tell him in person or have “Andrea” show him.

“If they have it he will 110 percent get life,” Brittany Johnson said, reading the text. “And if I were on the jury I would be in favor of it even after seeing that one little piece of the puzzle.”

Andrea Cullington, 18, testified Wednesday that she showed the video of Dominic Johnson talking about beating someone to his mother one day in December 2016 when she was visiting.

Cullington, arrested last week when she ignored a subpoena to testify, showed prosecutors the video late Thursday. She told them it came from the girl with the shed.

The girl shared the video with prosecutors and the lead investigator on the case Monday.

The Johnson trial continues this week with closing statements expected next week before deliberations begin.

A trial date has yet to be set for the two remaining teens charged in Grunwald’s murder, Renfro and Austin Barrett.

Attorneys need to file any motions in the case — including any requests for a venue change or to separate their cases into two trials — by the end of January, Heath told them during a brief hearing Wednesday morning.

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