Palmer man convicted of murder in drug robberies won’t face death penalty after all

The handgun prosecutors say John Pearl Smith II buried after killing Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi in 2016. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)

A Palmer man has been convicted of murder after killing two people in 2016 during a series of robberies in the Wasilla area that targeted locations he believed were used for drug trafficking.

But 36-year-old John Pearl Smith II will not face the death penalty at his sentencing, as federal prosecutors had originally sought.

A jury convicted Smith on murder, robbery and gun charges Tuesday after an 11-day trial.

Prosecutors say the robberies started in 2015, when Smith kicked in the door at a Knik-Goose Bay Road house, fired a warning shot and stole drugs, jewelry and firearms. In 2016, they say he stole heroin and cash in another home invasion in Wasilla.

Prosecutors say Smith shot and killed Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi in a garage during another attempted robbery in 2016 in Wasilla, after which he burned the bodies and garage.

Smith was arrested more than three weeks later.

While he was in jail, prosecutors announced in 2018 they would seek the death penalty, under a directive from then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Alaska does not have the death penalty, but Smith’s case was charged under the federal system, which does include capital punishment.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alaska, it was only the third time in the past 30 years that a formal intent to pursue the death penalty had been filed in an Alaska case.

Then, in 2021, current Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that federal executions would be halted pending a review.

Smith’s sentencing is set for December. He faces a minimum of 34 years behind bars, up to life imprisonment.

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

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