Murder on Knik River Rd: Will Erick Come Clean?

On December 2nd at 6:00 p.m., Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn summoned Erick Almandinger, his father, mother and grandmother to the Palmer Trooper Post. What he wanted, more than anything, was for Erick Almandinger to come clean.

While Erick waited in another room, Wegrzyn briefed Rodney Almandinger and his mother, Myler, on the status of the investigation. Erick, he told them, had long been a “person of interest” in David Grunwald’s disappearance and murder. Both of them peppered the sergeant with questions and complaints.

Wegrzyn methodically plowed forward, showing the two evidence photograph after evidence photograph. Blood in the trailer. The outline of David Grunwald’s body on its floor. Slowly, surely, they began to see the outlines of Erick’s involvement.

Clean
Alaska State Trooper Investigator, Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn

In an effort to shift the blame, though, Rodney tried to imply that David Grunwald wasn’t the upstanding kid everyone made him out to be. Wegrzyn quickly came to Grunwald’s defense. “He was a good kid,” Wegrzyn told him.

Clean
Rodney & Myler Almandinger, Palmer Post Interrogation Room

“The only reason he isn’t a good kid, honestly, he smokes weed. That’s his worst flaw in life. He’s a 16 year old boy who worked all summer to afford that truck, ok? He has a curfew that he abides by, he’s got a long-time girlfriend, he goes to a charter school that you don’t just get into, you gotta apply. He’s moving forward and taking college classes as a 16 year old boy. David was a good kid.”

Ever protective, Rodney and Myler next tried to point the blame elsewhere, to another of Erick’s friends. Wegrzyn was patient, but not buying it. Finally, he told them he had evidence that Erick was the shooter. It was time for them to face reality.

Troopers led Erick Almandinger into the Palmer Post interview room to join his father and grandmother. The room was cramped, with barely enough space for four chairs and a table. A brief game of musical chairs took place as Erick assumed a spot directly across from his grandmother. Then the fireworks began. Both his grandmother and father tried to get him to come clean.

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Rodney, Myler & Erick Almandinger, Palmer Post Interrogation Room

“They said you shot him,” Erick’s father shouted during the interview. “You pulled the trigger!”

Erick’s grandmother Myler, also in disbelief her grandson could be involved in the killing, admonished him. “You needed to come home, get on your knees and say, ‘Grandma I fucked up.'”

In the face of this onslaught, Erick maintained his innocence. That only served to anger Rodney and Myler, who shouted at him to stop lying to investigators.

“You killed him over weed?! Why the hell would you shoot someone over weed,” Rodney asked.

“Tell me the logic in that,” Erick countered. Unrepentant, Erick was steadfast in his denials. It was too much for Rodney, who eventually left the room and could later be heard, beyond the walls, wailing inconsolably.

He was replaced by Erick’s mother, Chrystal. Slowly, under his mother’s tough-love guidance, Erick opened up and began to tell the trooper sergeant what went down that fateful night. Not coming completely clean, but approaching it. He was still clinging to his alternate reality.

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Chrystal, Myler & Erick Almandinger, Palmer Post Interrogation Room

Wegrzyn had already confronted him. “Do you think Devin, Dominic, Bradley Renfro, that any of those guys are going to sit there and take the fall for you?”

Erick Almandinger said Peterson was one of his best friends and wouldn’t believe Peterson or any of the other suspects would give him up. “They would take the fall for me if I did this. They would. I know that on everything I’ve ever believed in,” he said.

No one was buying that one.

As the admissions trickled out, Almandinger (falsely) told Sgt. Wegrzyn that he, Renfro, Barrett and Johnson all burned Grunwald’s Bronco together after they shot him in the woods. [Barrett was not present at the burning.] And Erick insisted it was Johnson who pulled the trigger. “Dom was holding him by the shirt, made him walk the whole way. Turns him around, as soon as he looks up, bang! He just drops.”

Then, seemingly on a whim, Erick changed his story and claimed it was Austin Barrett who was the trigger man. Maybe coming clean meant nothing more than finding someone else to take the fall.

Clean
Austin “Andrew” Barrett

And from there it was a sick romp through the rest of their night. How he slipped into a creek as he tried to escape. Dropped off the murder weapon at Devin Peterson’s. Bought gas to torch the truck. Smoked dope while they waited for a cab to pick them up. Cleaned out the trailer. Went to the shed as a hideout.

Partied as they lived out the banality of evil.

Erick Almandinger Interrogation, December 2, 2016, Palmer Trooper Post (courtesy KTVA-11)


Sources: Anchorage Daily News, KTVA-11, KTUU, Alaska Public Media, The Frontiersman

Murder on Knik River Rd: Finding David Grunwald

After torching David Grunwald’s Bronco, and taking a cab to Palmer, Erick and his friends made it back to the Almandinger residence. Erick heated pizza pockets and chimichangas while Johnson and Renfro cleaned up the trailer and tried to burn a small, blood-stained carpet runner. Erick then grabbed more convenience food, raided the liquor cabinet and, at 4:00 a.m, messaged Alissa Bledsoe, who gave them permission to stay in a nearby shed.

By November 14th, all five suspects — Almandinger, Peterson, Brad Renfro, Austin Barrett and Dominic Johnson — ended up in the shed. According to Bledsoe, “They were just hanging out. Sitting, drinking and smoking. Hanging out like friends do.” But ultimately they were cold and hungry. They left and came back. By November 16th, Erick Almandinger told Bledsoe he’d found a place to stay; in fact, he went back to his father’s house.

The rest of them, though, were pretty much homeless. This turned out to give troopers tremendous leverage, although it wasn’t immediately apparent.

Grunwald
David Grunwald Missing Poster

After several failed attempts, trooper investigator Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn finally caught up with Erick Almandinger on November 16th. Erick denied seeing Grunwald the night he disappeared and said he had taken a cab to Anchorage. That was a lie.

On a subsequent visit, Wegrzyn seized Erick Almandinger’s Samsung tablet. Cellular data from Almandinger’s tablet indicated it had been near Grunwald’s SUV the night it burned. Troopers also found a cabdriver who had picked up Almandinger and two other teens near the SUV.

When troopers ranged through the Almandinger’s social media accounts, they found even more evidence. Almandinger posted a missing poster but also searched the Etsy online shopping site for “unique Crip-related items.” Almandinger told Devin Peterson the investigators “literally have nothing and think they can get me (to) say I did some shit I didn’t do.” Photos obtained from Almandinger’s tablet included a photo of him with the word “Killahs” superimposed over it.

Grunwald
Erick Almandinger’s “Killah’s” photo, found on his tablet

As investigators trolled Erick’s network of friends — and talked with other sources — they started to develop an ever-tighter profile of his likely accomplices. Although Erick had the luxury of his father’s house, the rest of his friends were finding life on the run more difficult than they’d imagined.

Alaska State Troopers lured several of the teen suspects to Valley Hotel in Palmer during the early morning hours of December 2nd and then questioned them. Sgt. Wegrzyn paid for Bradley Renfro, one of the suspects, to stay at the downtown hotel with his girlfriend, Alissa Bledsoe, after Palmer police reported them there at 2 a.m. trying to get a room. The other teens later charged in connection with the killing showed up too: Dominic Johnson, Austin Barrett and Devin Peterson.

Grunwald
Four killers in handcuffs after their arrest (l-r: Bradley Renfro, Dominic Johnson, Austin Barrett, Erick Almandinger)

Wegrzyn knew the teens would scatter if he told Renfro he wanted to talk to him the morning of December 2nd. In that, they seemed predictable. But troopers were waiting to detain them.

Their first break came when Devin Peterson told them that Erick Almandinger admitted to being the trigger man in David Grunwald’s execution.

That afternoon Dominic Johnson, accompanied by attorney Jon Marc Petersen, helped investigators locate Grunwald’s body, frozen to the ground and covered with snow in the scrub brush, 200 feet off Knik River Rd. An investigator found one shell casing nearby.

By then, it was almost 3 p.m.

Grunwald
David Grunwald’s body, in the snow near Knik River Rd


Sources: Anchorage Daily News, KTVA-11, KTUU, Alaska Public Media, The Frontiersman

Murder on Knik River Rd: What Erick Almandinger Knows

Erick Almandinger was, ultimately, at the center of a universe that slowly but surely got out of control. It was Erick who played ringmaster to a diverse — and eventually antagonistic — group of friends. Unlike David Grunwald, Erick was only a sometime-student; he preferred to drink and smoke dope and party with friends. He’d spent the better part of his previous summer at nearby “trap houses,” doing drugs.

Some of his friends were chronically homeless, periodically involved in criminal activities and, perhaps most incongruously, trying to emulate the L.A.-based gang known as the Crips. In their adolescent fantasy world, it seemed to matter little that the Crips were black — and Erick’s friends were mostly white. The following represents a parallel timeline, one that overlaps and ultimately overtakes Victoria Mokelke’s timeline.


Erick Almandinger at his 2016 Arraignment (Age 16)

November 13, 2016
6:00 p.m.: David Evans arrives at Erick Almandinger’s house, dropped off by David Grunwald. Evans has been living at the Almandinger’s, but after staying elsewhere for a week, needs to reestablish his permission to live there. Rodney Almandinger tells Evans that, due to his leaving the house without communicating with anyone, he has to move out. But Rodney adds that Evans should “ask Gramma,” Rodney’s mother, because she ultimately rules the roost.

Approximately 6:00 p.m.: Christian Ward, who lives across the street from the Almandinger’s, has dropped by to watch movies with Erick Almandinger and is at the residence during “an argument” between Rodney Almandinger and David Evans. Growing uncomfortable, he goes to the garage to say goodbye to Erick. The lights are off, but he sees “3 or 4 kids in there.” That the lights are off tells Ward that “something was weird.”

Approximately 6:10 p.m.: David Evans, accompanied by Erick Almandinger, asks Gramma (Myler Almandinger) if he (Evans) can move back into the house. After a passionate discussion, Gramma says “no.”

6:22 p.m.: Erick’s friend Dominic Johnson messages Erick. “We’re at the camper” (which is parked at the Almandinger residence). Johnson is one of the “3 or 4 kids” that Christian Ward “saw” in the Almandinger garage.

Erick
Almandinger Trailer at Alaska State Troopers evidence facility

Approximately 6:30 p.m.: David Evans, who arrived with a single daypack, goes downstairs to pack the rest of his belongings into plastic garbage sacks. Having not showered for a week, he also takes a long shower at the Almandinger’s. He later testifies that he did not see Grunwald after he was dropped off at the Almandinger residence (at 6:00 p.m.).

6:40 p.m.: David Grunwald arrives at the Almendinger’s residence on Esty Drive in Palmer.

7:07 p.m.: David shares an Instagram conversation with Angela Dicus, telling her he is “smoking a J.”

Approximately 8:00 p.m.: Rodney Almandinger sees David Evans and his son Erick with plates of food.

8:09 p.m.: Dominic Johnson messages Erick, asking to “borrow a toolie,” a reference to Erick’s .40 Ruger pistol. Johnson, who is 6 feet, 3 inches and 250 pounds, intends to pistol-whip Grunwald with the weapon because he “doesn’t like” him.

Erick
Dominic Johnson in jail scrubs after his arrest

8:10 p.m.: David Grunwald messages Angela Dicus using Snapchat.

8:16 p.m.: Dominic Johnson again messages Erick Almandinger, this time with more urgency, saying “I gotta act fast like (right now) fast you feel me.” Erick eventually complies, handing his .40 Ruger to Johnson through the door of the camper. Johnson and a second friend, Austin Barrett, begin to pistol-whip David Grunwald. Erick Almandinger soon enters the camper to join them.

8:35 p.m.: Last cell data ping from David Grunwald’s phone, near Palmer.

After deciding that David Grunwald “knows too much,” he is taken into the woods off Knik River Rd and killed with a single shot from a 9mm Springfield.

9:43 p.m.: Per cell tower ping, Dominic Johnson’s phone is in the Butte area, southeast of Palmer. Later that evening, accomplices Erick Almandinger, Dominic Johnson, Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro go to friend Devin Peterson’s house, ostensibly to ask Devin to ditch their weapons after murdering David Grunwald. Peterson calls them “stupid fucks,” but takes the weapons.

9:48 p.m.: David Evans is picked up by his brother and leaves the Almandinger residence.

9:55 p.m.: Victoria Mokelke, who knows Erick Almandinger from their days at Colony High school, starts messaging Erick.

10:20 p.m.: Rodney Almandinger starts messaging Erick. By 10:50 p.m., he has been contacted by David Grunwald’s parents and knows David is missing.

11:37 p.m.: Erick Almandinger responds to Victoria. He lies to her, claiming “Im not home I’m at a friends house in anchorage drunk as fuck.”

Erick
Erick & Victoria (Facebook Messenger)

12:12 a.m., November 14, 2016: Erick Almandinger finally responds to his father.

Erick


Sources: Anchorage Daily News, KTVA-11, KTUU, Alaska Public Media, The Frontiersman

Arrest of Robert Hansen: Last Gasp

Although there would be additional attempts to identify bodies, June 1984 marked the last gasp in the contemporaneous search for Hansen’s gravesites. Given that Hansen’s first known murders occurred in the early ’70’s, each passing year meant trace evidence grew thinner. Even spots where there was a match between Hansen’s aviation map and his on-site ID’s, the prospect loomed large that wild animals or humans had disturbed, or even removed, portions of those remains.

It’s telling that the last entry in Sgt. Flothe’s memorialization waivered between positive and negative. Even with the help of a dog, his search for remains at Hansen gravesite #7 were initially written up as “negative.” And then the “negative” was mysteriously crossed out. In other words, it read exactly like a last gasp entry:

Last Gasp

Last Gasp
Trooper Cadet Ray Jennings Searches Along the Knik 1984 (courtesy Anchorage Times)

For the record, Flothe’s detailed matrix ultimately identified Gravesite #7, “adjacent to Goulding grave,” with a blank entry denoting negative results.

Last Gasp
Sgt. Flothe’s Victim Matrix (excerpt)


Thirty years later, authorities would exhume the body of an unidentified victim, hoping that new science would unpack her identity. Some speculated this victim, who was nicknamed “Horseshoe Harriet” because her body was found near Horseshoe Lake, was actually Andrea Altiery.

In 1984, however, Sgt. Flothe had identified this woman differently, saying it was “Tentative Delynn Frey.” Frey, whose dancing name was “Sugar,” was 20 at the time of her disappearance in March 1983. Angela Feddern had disappeared in February 1983 and was found near Figure 8 Lake, just due west of Horseshoe Lake. That seemed to link them in time as well as space, which appeared to make DeLynn Frey the more likely answer.

At this writing, however, the identity of Horseshoe Harriet is still unconfirmed.

Last Gasp
DeLynn Frey (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

Last Gasp
Horseshoe Lake (Google Maps, illustration by Leland E. Hale)


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Arrest of Robert Hansen: Fish Necklace

Andrea Altiery was originally from Hawaii, the daughter of a prominent local family. She made her way to Anchorage in the early eighties, seeking the elusive fortune of exotic dancing. Maybe she had Rock Fever, that sometimes disorienting disease borne of being stuck on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At any rate, after moving to Alaska one thing led to another. Somehow, she got entangled with Bob Hansen, likely on another “photo session” that promised hundreds of dollars. That Hansen killed her was certain. Her fish necklace was found among the mementoes in his attic.

There was no mistaking that necklace. It was gold and custom-made. It was one of Andrea’s prized possessions. No way would she have voluntarily gifted it to Bob Hansen.

Fish Necklace
Andrea Altiery’s Fish Necklace (photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

No. Bob Hansen stole that necklace after he killed Andrea Altiery. Stole it and hid it in his attic, among his other mementoes. Neither Mona Altiery nor her semi-famous father would ever learn more about their daughter.


NOTE: 10-21 = Call by Phone

Fish Necklace


Fish Necklace
Andrea “Andra” Altiery (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Arrest of Robert Hansen: Resurrection Bay

There is no special consideration for Bob Hansen’s “most despicable” crimes. They were all variations of bad to worst. That’s how it rolls when you’re dealing with a serial killer. But the name “Resurrection Bay” always looms as a cruel reminder that even irony went missing with Robert Chris Hansen.

Resurrection Bay brings us Mary Thill and Megan Emerick, whose probable murders stand out as particularly callous deeds in a career defined by callousness.

As Sgt. Flothe had learned, Robert Hansen was loathe to confess to any murders that didn’t involve prostitutes. In Hansen’s world, prostitutes were “lower” than him and ready-made victims. But Hansen claimed that a woman who was not a prostitute was someone he “put on a pedestal.” Denying that he killed Mary and Megan seemed to be the only way Hansen could deal with the cognitive dissonance erupting from his murder of innocents. For Megan and Mary, that meant that theirs would always be a watery grave, deep in Davy Jones’ locker, with no hope of recovery (1).


NOTE: 10-21 = Call by Phone

Handwritten

Resurrection
Mary Thill (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

Resurrection
Megan Emerick (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)


(1) I was contacted by a TV producer some years ago who wanted to mount a sniffer dog search for Mary and Megan. Maybe I’m missing something in the imagination department, but that was one of the most far-fetched things I’ve ever heard. I dunno. Give ’em credit. Maybe they had super-underwater-dogs from outer space.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Arrest of Robert Hansen: Bring in the Cat

5/14/84
As May moved along, the ground started to yield and the days grew longer. It was then that troopers brought in heavy equipment to assist in the search for bodies. It represented a kind of desperation: there is nothing particularly delicate about a Cat, although a skilled operator with a deft touch can come awfully close to turning a Cat excavator into a precision tool.

And yet, even with the heavy lifters, the Knik refused to give up all its secrets.

Cat


Cat
Detail: Hansen’s Map – Knik River Sites (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Arrest of Robert Hansen: Clustered Graves in the Killing Fields

That Robert Hansen would go back to the same spots along the Knik River, and leave bodies clustered there, says something about him, though I’m not entirely sure what. Was he lazy? Panicked? Careless? Or did the clustered bodies speak instead to his ritual obsessions, so that it was easier for him to revisit the gravesites and re-live the murders at his leisure? Certainly the clustered gravesites made it easier on the cops when it came time to recover them, but that likely was the last thing on Bob Hansen’s mind.

Meanwhile, the contents of a paper bag found near the clustered remains revealed the intimate details of someone who would otherwise remain unidentified. She’d been wearing a dress jacket, Levi’s and nylon stockings; even her shoes were in that improvised tote bag. She had also carried a purse with makeup and an injection kit: Bic lighter, spoon and hypodermic needle. The injection kit told troopers she was cooking drugs. That was the sign of a junkie.

And the Buck hunting knife? Possibly a contributing factor in her death. Had she flashed it at Hansen, he surely would have killed her. Not that it mattered much either way. He probably killed her anyway.


Handwritten


Clustered


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Arrest of Robert Hansen: When Human Rituals Go Missing

Humans have developed elaborate rituals surrounding the key turning points of our all-too-brief lives. The “baby shower” for the mother-to-be. The “christening,” and the “bris,” for the newborn. The First Communion and the Bar-Bat Mitzvah for coming of age. The “Wedding,” yes, that one too, for it brings the expectation of a new human (maybe more). And, of course, the funeral, the final rites, the easing of the once living into the next orbit. There are many ways to do them, but each ritual is rooted in the same need.

At each of these rituals, we are joined to the great arc of our forbearers, our family, our community. These are joining’s, not leaving’s; even at the ultimate moment, when our lives are memorialized in the funeral ritual, we are remembered through the presence of those who will go on living, until they too meet this day.

These rituals are what people refer to when they speak of “closure.” The rings cannot be closed without them. At death we want the rituals.

Not this:

“Body located w/ head in northerly direction in the embankment under six inches of leaves and soil and under a log, on its back.”


Handwritten

Rituals
Lisa Futrell

NOTE: Beginning in May of 1984, when troopers began searching Hansen’s grave sites in earnest, Sgt. Flothe abandoned his typed diary and started making handwritten entries. The first of these is presented here.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Arrest of Robert Hansen: A Grieving Stepfather

I met Tamara Pederson’s stepfather on the set of the Sally Jessy Raphael show in November, 1991. He seethed with anger that the Troopers had not solved the Hansen murders sooner. He had a point. If they’d taken Hansen in the early ’70’s there was a chance that Tammy, as she was known, would still be alive. A chance.

In a telling exchange, an audience member asked Pederson how he could blame the police, because “you knew she was in a dangerous profession.” Tamara’s stepfather glared, but had no answer.


4/29/84: AL MOREAU, off duty Palmer Police Officer discovers bone and material protruding from ground near gravesite #6 across river from MORROW gravesite. Reports discovery to AST. Sergeant STOGSDILL and Lieutenant KASNICK removed body from grave. Body taken to Forest Lawn Mortuary.

4/30/84: Doctor ROGERS performed autopsy on found body. Subject shot twice with large calibre copper jacket recovered.

The weapon that Hansen likely used here was his Thompson Contender, a large calibre pistol that was as deadly as it looked.

Stepfather
Thompson Center Arms Contender (7mm, single shot)

5/1/84: Positive ID found body #6 from grave site #6 as TAMARA PEDERSON from dental X-rays. ID performed by Doctor Rogers.

Stepfather
Tamara Pederson (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

5/2/84: Met with VIGORENS and later Mr. PEDERSON reference TAMARA PEDERSON.

5/3/84: Met with Mr. PEDERSON, TAMARA’s adopted stepfather. Transported him to TAMARA’s grave site per his request. Also used Alyeska’s infared heat detecting video camera to help locate bodies at grave sites #1 and #3 with negative results.


Purchase Butcher, Baker