In murder of ‘all-American’ Palmer teen, first alleged accomplice goes on trial

(David Grunwald. Photo courtesy of Erin Grunwald)

The first of several defendants charged in the high-profile 2016 murder of Palmer teenager David Grunwald went on trial Monday before a packed courtroom.

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Prosecutors say Erick Almandinger, 18, was part of a small group of teenage accomplices in Grunwald’s beating, kidnapping and execution. Almandinger’s attorney says it’s true his client failed to stop the others, but that he isn’t guilty of murder.

Jurors heard testimony that Grunwald was a clean-cut kid who never stayed out past his curfew. But one night in mid-November, the 16-year-old didn’t come home at all. That prompted a massive volunteer search, and his Ford Bronco was found torched outside of town the next day.

Grunwald’s girlfriend, Victoria Mokelke, cried while testifying about the difficult days that followed.

“Everyone was looking for David,” Mokelke said. “It was restless nights for weeks. I didn’t get to sleep for days and days looking for him. It was just… We were hoping for anything.”

About two weeks later, one of Almandinger’s alleged accomplices led investigators to Grunwald’s body at another location, frozen to the ground and covered in a thin layer of snow.

In his opening statement, Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak offered no clear explanation as to why the group allegedly lured Grunwald to a trailer at Almandinger’s house and then decided to attack him. That included beating Grunwald with Almandinger’s heavy pistol.

But Kalytiak said Almandinger and the others all agreed on what to do next.

“And that unanimous decision by them was that, because the beating was so bad, because the gang beating was so bad, they could not leave a witness,” Kalytiak said. “So they made a unanimous decision to kidnap David, take him to a remote location and execute him.”

The prosecutor showed photos of Almandinger and his friends dressed in gang colors, throwing up gang signs and read aloud their text messages using slang terms for guns.

In court Monday, Almandinger looked different from the pictures, wearing a white shirt with his red hair slicked back. He appeared to wipe his eyes when Kalytiak described Grunwald pleading for his life.

Grunwald had apparently made a one-time mistake to hang out with the wrong crowd, and Almandinger’s attorney, Jon Iannaccone, said as much, describing the murder victim as “all-American.”

But the lawyer insisted his client was only playing at being a gangster. Iannaccone said the promise of smoking Almandinger’s marijuana attracted others to the trailer, and that Grunwald’s death was the result of their bad intentions.

“Erick Almandinger’s not guilty as the principle,” Iannaccone said. “What do I mean by that? He’s not the one who pulled the trigger. Erick Almandinger’s not guilty as an accomplice. Why? Because he did not have the criminal purpose for David to die. He did not have the criminal purpose to kill David Grunwald.”

Iannaccone admits Almandinger is guilty of lying afterward to help cover up Grunwald’s murder, but he pointed to another man charged as the shooter: Austin Barrett.

The 20-year-old Barrett is implicated in the slaying, along with Dominic Johnson and Bradley Renfro. They are being tried separately.

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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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