Palmer man faces federal charges in 2016 double homicide

Acting Alaska U.S. attorney Bryan Schroder speaking at a press conference on March 23, 2017 (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

A Palmer man faces federal charges in a Wasilla double homicide last summer, and the defendant, 30-year-old John Pearl Smith II, could face the death penalty.

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Prosecutors say the decision to charge Smith in federal court aims to fulfill a nationwide directive by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use federal resources in fighting violent crime at the local and state level.

It was June of 2016 when Alaska State Troopers found Wasilla residents 43-year-old Ben Gross and 30-year-old Crystal Denardi shot to death inside a burning home, as well as another injured man.

The charges filed against Smith say he was a suspect in the double homicide from the beginning. After intense surveillance for about two weeks — including surveillance from the air and the monitoring of Smith’s phone — he was arrested on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to the charges.

Acting U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder said the arrest allowed troopers and federal investigators to build their case against Smith while he was safely behind bars.

“The investigation was extensive in this case, led by the Alaska State Troopers, who obtained assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration,” Schroder said.

A federal grand jury handed up a 17-count indictment this week that includes charges of using a firearm in a murder, burglary and attempted drug possession with the intent to distribute. It appears Smith was trying to steal drugs when the shootings occurred.

Schroder said the drug connection is what allowed the charges to be filed in federal court, where the death penalty is an option.

Smith’s attorney, Steve Wells, said the government must first prove that they have the proper evidence to seek the death penalty for Smith, even before a potential trial begins.

Wells said the argument over that issue and others will occur in time.

“We look forward to our day in court,” Wells said. “Mr. Smith would remind everybody that, in our system, someone is innocent until proven guilty.

Schroder, the acting U.S. Attorney, said the case against Smith is an example of the cooperation by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies requested by Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General. Schroder said he expects to see more coordinated efforts in the future.

“That cooperation is what we really want to emphasize here today, that we’re all doing what we can to protect the people of Alaska from violent crime,” Schroder said.

Meantime, the position of U.S. Attorney for Alaska remains open. Schroder said he does not know how long it will take the Trump administration to make a decision.

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Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him Read more about Caseyhere

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