Murder on Knik River Rd: Lord of the Flies

In the Mat-Su jungle of Erick Almandinger, Dominic Johnson, Austin Barrett, Bradley Renfro and Devin Peterson, it was the kids who had taken charge. By the time David Grunwald wandered onto their island, they’d become a lawless pack, a faded facsimile of characters that was more Lord of the Flies than Lord of the Rings.

The adults had mostly abdicated. Even the Grunwald’s had ceded some control. David had earned their trust, true; but part of him was drawn to that wild place, inhabited by the savages, not the Lord. Some might say he was there only for the video games and Rodney Almandinger’s pot, but it was island rules as soon as he landed.

David’s remorseless beating at the hands of Dominic Johnson and Austin Barrett was pre-ordained by their creed as the “pale Crips,” an assertion of their clan’s superiority over anything David Grunwald could see, hear, feel, smell, touch — or think. That which was not of them was the enemy and must be destroyed.

As in Golding’s novel, the sniveling began when the Officers arrived. The bravado of this posse was tinsel thin. Their alibis, bits of dander, floating on random gusts of pretense. Their “genius” nothing more than a shamboozlement of self-deception, a boondoggle of the ego and the id.

When they woke up, these kids were in chains.

Lord

Murder on Knik River Rd: Meet the Parents, Part II

Given that both the suspects and their victim were in their teens, it is difficult to overlook their parents, if only because some supporters pointed fingers at the suspects’ parents. That means we should look at everyone. This time, we meet the suspects’ families.

Meet The Almandinger’s
In his early teens, Erick Almandinger entered cookies in the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. Now he stands convicted of murder. Clearly, he lost the through-thread of his life.

Rodney Almandinger, his father, testified in court that his son wasn’t going to school regularly that fall of 2016, and had been living at drug houses over the summer. Erick appeared to come and go as he pleased. The Sunday night that Grunwald went missing — a school night — Erick Almandinger told troopers he was at a party in Anchorage. His father testified he wasn’t worried when he looked in Erick’s room at 1:00 in the morning and his son wasn’t home.

Meet
Rodney Almandinger

State court records indicate, moreover, that the Almandinger family had some issues. Domestic violence protective orders were filed against Rodney Almandinger several times in the 2000’s by Erick’s mother, Chrystal. Rodney in turn filed for a protective order against her.

It was altogether a strange domestic situation. Rodney lived at his mother’s house, running a small stained glass business out of her basement. By all accounts — including Rodney’s — it was Myler Almandinger who ruled the roost: on the day of David Grunwald’s murder, Rodney deferred to his mother when David Evans asked if he could resume living at the Almandinger residence.

That Erick was even living with his father was yet another story. His mother had kicked him out of her house months earlier for, among other things, hanging out with kids she didn’t approve of. Yeah, those kids.

Meet The Johnson’s
In court jurors heard from Dominic Johnson’s mother, Misty Johnson, and got some insight into his life before his arrest.

“This is you to Dominic,” defense attorney Jon Iannaccone read aloud from text messages Misty sent to Dominic. “No you won’t because I’m not visiting you in jail, no one will. You sure turned out to be quite a piece of shit.”

Meet
Misty Johnson

Iannaccone read another volatile text message exchange between Misty and Dominic on November 11, 2016, just two days before troopers said Dominic took part in Grunwald’s murder. “I’m going to throw a party when your ass goes to jail, a fucking party. Say hi to your dad while you’re in there,” Misty wrote.

Misty told jurors she was upset Dominic “hadn’t been acting like himself” and that’s what prompted those messages. “He was hanging out with kids I didn’t allow over and he was very upset I wouldn’t let them over and we got into a heated argument,” Misty said.

Although she denied that Dominic was ever homeless he, too, was adrift and moving from place to place. Worse, when Misty let some of Dominic’s friends stay over, they proceeded to rob her father’s safe, stealing cash and jewelry. One of the accused robbers was none other than Austin Barrett, he of the 9mm pistol used to kill David Grunwald.

Meet
Facebook Message Posted by Misty Johnson on the Justice for David Grunwald page

Meet the Barrett’s
Little is publicly available about Austin “Andrew” Barrett’s family. We do know that he was persistently homeless. That he stayed with Misty Johnson one Thanksgiving and returned the favor by helping to steal her father’s safe, taking cash and jewelry in the process. We do know that, on the night David Grunwald was killed, Austin Barrett slept in a car in front of Devin Peterson’s house. We also know that he was in the Valley Hotel with the other suspects on December 2nd, the day troopers pulled all the threads together; he was there because… he was homeless and on the run.

Meet
Austin “Andrew” Barrett (Misty Johnson identified the watch on Barrett’s wrist as one that belonged to her father)

Meet the Renfro’s
Bradley Renfro denies participation in David Grunwald’s murder. But he was the one who purchased the gasoline used to torch Grunwald’s Bronco. And Renfro was the connection fo Alissa Bledsoe — she was his girlfriend and she gave them shelter when they were on the run after the murder. Bledsoe was also with Bradley when they tried to check into the Valley Hotel. Like his friends, he was homeless and on the run.

It was Renfro’s grandparents who were present in the courthouse at the close of Erick Almandinger’s trial, awaiting the verdict. They told reporters they believed their grandson would meet the same fate that Erick Almandinger met.

Meet
Bradley Renfro

There was sadness in that admission. No matter what the verdict for their grandson, they said, there was no good outcome. A teen was dead and the young men, including their grandson, would never have the chance at a normal life.

Meet the Peterson’s
When Devin Peterson was arrested for his role in David Grunwald’s murder, police seized his cell phone. They found a video he’d taken of an intoxicated 15-year-old being raped. Child porn charges followed quickly. Devin’s brother Damien, meanwhile, was brought in on being an accomplice in a homicide that was originally ruled an accident. With Damien Peterson the night of that murder: Austin Barrett.

According to their mother, Alanah, Damien and Devin have different fathers. She told reporters that Damien’s father lives in Anchorage and maintains a relationship with his son. Devin’s father recently moved back from Pennsylvania, Alanah said, but Devin refuses to have a relationship with him.

Meet
Alanah Peterson

Alanah Peterson, who works three jobs, says she called police repeatedly to have Devin arrested on probation violations in the hopes of getting him out of the lifestyle. “They were already doing crazy stuff, but I didn’t think anybody could kill anybody. It just didn’t seem like they gave a crap. They just took stuff from people and they didn’t care,” Alanah said, adding that she could see a change for the worse come over Devin once he started hanging with the Almandinger posse (1).

Peterson also told reporters that the public condemnation of the parents of the accused — which Alanah said has included death threats — is misplaced. “It’s not the parents’ fault,” she insisted. “At a certain age kids have to know right from wrong. If they didn’t learn it from you they learn it at church or school. This could be anybody’s child. It doesn’t have to be a bad kid to get in this situation.”


(1) Devin had been in trouble with the law since his first criminal act at the age of 11. His criminal activities appear to have picked up from age 15 on. His mother is dissembling when she attributes changes in his behavior solely to his Mat-Su Valley friends.

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

Murder on Knik River Rd: Meet the Parents, Part I

Given that both the suspects and their victim were in their teens, it is difficult to disregard their parents, if only because some supporters pointed fingers at the suspects’ parents. That means we should look at everyone. We’ll start from the top.

The Grunwalds
By the time David Grunwald was born, his mother was in her late 30’s and his father was in his early 40’s. Both in the military — he in the Air Force, she in the Air National Guard — Edie and Ben were already parents to two adopted children. While their own careers were important — Edie started with the rank of Airman and retired as a Colonel after 30 plus years — David was always their special someone. As parents, his family — Edie especially — made a point of taking him on a range of field trips, “so he could be different and be a leader.” That also meant following a strict military discipline of curfews, household chores and exceptional performance.

David seemed up to that ambition. At the time of his death, he was enrolled in the prestigious Mat-Su Career and Tech High School. Each summer he attended Aviation and Space Camp. His dad had started him on flying lessons. Predominantly schooled in Christian institutions during his elementary years, he joined Bible study at Valley Baptist Tabernacle in Palmer and, each summer, attended the Solid Rock Bible Camp. According to his obituary, he “accepted Jesus as his Savior.”

But things weren’t entirely rosy in the Grunwald household. By mid-2014, the Alaska Air National Guard was engaged in a full-blown scandal. And Col. Edith Grunwald was smack in the middle: Grunwald was director of human resources for the Guard, and a “senior advisor on manpower/personnel matters.” The Guard was having personnel problems galore.

Parents
Col. Edith Grunwald, Alaska Air National Guard

A 2014 investigation by the National Guard Bureau, Office of Complex Investigations (OCI), found a range of extremely troubling issues:

  • The OCI found that the Alaska Air National Guard was suffering from “hostile climate issues,” stemming from a “general pattern of inappropriate behavior that was not being addressed by the leadership.” Examples included the “public display of nude pictures, sexual innuendo and inappropriate touching” within the workplace.
  • Inappropriate use of government travel and purchase cards was uncovered, as was one incident of embezzlement and a separate incident involving the misuse of equipment, including a helicopter, and personnel for personal gain.
  • The investigative team also found that while there were many kinds of misconduct (failed urinalysis, alcohol violations, sexual assault, assault, fraud, etc.), there “was a lack of consistency in the tracking of various cases…” and “a lack of consistent punishment for like offenses.”

“Overall, the survey reveals a perception of lack of leadership integrity within all levels of command,” investigators wrote in their final report. Col. Edith Grunwald, along with two other officers, was fired.

David adored his mom, calling her “the best mom ever.” Suddenly — publicly — that authority was being called into question. Did that, in some way, lead David to act out in ways that betrayed his straight-arrow reputation? Or was it just teenage rebellion after so many years towing the strict lines laid out by his parents? Whatever it was, David dove into a world he little understood and was ill-equipped to handle.

Parents
David Grunwald and his mom, Edith Grunwald (courtesy Edie Grunwald for Lt. Governor)


Sources: Anchorage Daily News, KTUU, Alaska Public Media

Murder on Knik River Rd: Guilty on All Counts

May 31, 2018
After a nine day trial in Palmer, Alaska, Erick Almandinger was found guilty on all nine counts he was charged with. The now-18-year-old was found guilty on counts of Murder 1, Kidnapping, Murder 2 (intend injury), Murder 2 (Extreme Indifference), Murder 2 (Felony murder), tampering with evidence, vehicle theft and arson. The four counts of murder and one count of kidnapping are all unclassified felonies, which could each come with a 99 year sentence at a judge’s discretion.

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Erick Almandinger Verdict (courtesy KTVA-TV)

By all measures, it had been a brutal nine days. Both of David’s parents — Edie and Ben Grunwald — had testified. They spent some time, of course, as character witnesses. But more crucial was their narrative of David’s disappearance. They were bulldogs as they searched for their missing son, even sanctioning a search on the Almandinger property. In the end, finding David alive was futile; they wore the look of profound loss on their faces. That said more than words could tell.

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Edie & Ben Grunwald (testifying in the Erick Almandinger trial)

Victoria Mokelke’s tearful testimony brought home the pivotal role she played in the last hours of David’s life. Most heart-wrenching were her pleas to Erick Almandinger. Several days after David’s disappearance, she sent Almandinger a message at 4 a.m.: “I haven’t slept in days… I’m completely heartbroken and lost. I just want to know if my baby is safe,” Mokelke read, sobbing.

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Victoria Mokelke (testifying in the Erick Almandinger trial)

Erick’s parents, Rodney Almandinger and Chrystal Carlson, also told jurors what they knew. Rodney’s father spent the better part of a day on the stand, trying to explain what he did — and didn’t — know. He spent most of his time admitting his complete and utter ignorance of what was happening literally beneath his nose.

Counts
L-R: Prosecuting Attorney, Roman Kalytiak; Rodney Almandinger; Chrystal Carlson

Erick’s defense attorney Jon Iannaccone, meanwhile, put forth a nearly-passive defense. In it, he declined to argue with the facts of the case as presented by the cops and prosecutors. The prosecution’s case — bolstered by physical evidence, cell phone pings, social media messages, security camera images, autopsy data and eyewitness testimony — was a strong one.

Iannaccone instead argued that Erick did not participate in the actual murder. He insisted that Erick went along with the others because he feared for his own life. In his closing argument, he went so far as to suggest that Erick’s so-called friends had used him, caring more about his pot than Erick himself.

Counts
Defense Attorney, Jon Iannaccone

Not that Iannaccone’s defense had been passive throughout. He had introduced several motions to suppress evidence, including four interviews Erick had with Alaska State Troopers, as well as pictures found on his social media accounts and photographs of Grunwald’s body taken at the crime scene. Those were all motions he lost.

For his part, Erick Almandinger barely registered in the courtroom. He maintained a blank look throughout the trial, save for a few suppressed smiles during conversations with his attorneys. His emotions, it seemed, were saved for closing arguments, when he was seen to shed a few tears. Sorry, Erick. Too late. “You needed to come home, get on your knees and say, ‘Grandma I fucked up.’”

Counts
Erick Almandinger cries during closing arguments


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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: Cell Tower Pings

David Grunwald had a cell phone. Dominic Johnson had a cell phone, as did Austin Barrett. Each one sent network pings that Sunday when David Grunwald went missing. Erick Almandinger had a Samsung tablet; it too periodically sent pings to the network on the evening of David Grunwald’s murder. The only one without a cell phone was Bradley Renfro, but he showed up on camera in the 11:00 p.m. timeframe, purchasing gas at a Holiday gas station alongside Dominic Johnson.

Through these pings, then, the Alaska State Troopers tracked the whereabouts of David Grunwald — and the posse who killed him — across the entirety of that fateful Sunday: from the beating at the Almandinger trailer, to his execution along Knik River Rd, the rendezvous at Devin Peterson’s house and, then, the final stop at the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains, where Almandinger, Johnson and Renfro torched David Grunwald’s 1995 Ford Bronco.


Pings
Grunwald, Almandinger, Johnson, Barrett location, 7:00-8:23 p.m., November 13 (Almandinger residence on Esty Rd.)

Pings
Grunwald, Almandinger, Johnson, Barrett location, 9:05-9:43 p.m., November 13 (South to the Butte)

Pings
DETAIL: Grunwald, Almandinger, Johnson, Barrett location, 9:05-9:43 p.m., November 13 (Old Knik River Bridge; David Grunwald is executed near this location)

Pings
DETAIL: Almandinger, Johnson, Barrett location, 9:56 p.m., November 13 (Arctic Ave & Glenn Hwy, now moving in a westerly direction toward Devin Peterson’s house)

Pings
DETAIL: Almandinger, Johnson, Barrett location, 11:06-11:08 p.m., November 13 (Kaye Lake Rd., Devin Peterson residence; Almandinger drops off the murder and pistol-whip weapons, picks up two portable gas containers)

NOTE: There is a discrepancy here, because the Holiday gas station security camera shows Brad Renfro at 10:53 p.m.; clearly, one of the time-stamps is in error — we take it to be the gas station time-stamp.

Pings
Almandinger, Johnson location, 11:38 p.m., November 13 (Schrock Rd., near site where David Grunwald’s Bronco was burned; Austin Barrett remains at the Peterson location)


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

Murder on Knik River Rd: Delusions of Grandeur

Grandeur
Erick Almandinger’s “delusions of grandeur” conversation with Devin Peterson (Facebook Messenger, transcriptions of conversations shortly after the murder of David Grunwald, with Almandinger in purple text. Courtesy Alaska State Troopers)


Erick Almandinger figured he had it all worked out. His cover stories to Victoria and his father, Rodney, established that he was elsewhere when the Grunwald murder went down. As further proof, he had witnesses to the fact that he spent the night of November 13-14 at Alissa Bledsoe’s shed with his posse. Can’t be two places at once.

Yet, when Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn first contacted Erick on Wednesday, November 16th, the young Almandinger insisted he’d gone to a party in Anchorage on the evening of 13 November. It was at least consistent with what he’d told Victoria Mokelke. But Erick was fuzzy about the details, like the price of the cab ride and his exact destination in Anchorage. Those were things he should have known. Things that Wegrzyn could check up on.

How did you get there, Wegrzyn asked, knowing that Erick didn’t drive.
I took a cab.
Which cab company?
Premier.
How much did it cost?
Around 60 or 120 dollars.
Where did you go in Anchorage?
Downtown somewhere.
Where?
Somewhere near… you know, the main part of Anchorage.

Just as incriminating, Erick had his Samsung tablet with him the entire time. Troopers would subpoena records from both his cell provider and Facebook. They found him in places he shouldn’t have been. The 16 yo genius was either too dumb or too arrogant to care. Maybe both.

Still, there was Erick’s naive identification with the Crips to hold reality at bay. In his fourth and decisive interview with Sgt. Wegrzyn — taken around 6:00 p.m. on December 2, 2016 — Almandinger claimed his friends “would take the fall for me if I did this. They would. I know that on everything I’ve ever believed in,” he said. They had a code of honor or something like that. You know, that gangster code of honor that homies accord each other.

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Erick & friends flashing the Crips “C” sign

Sgt. Wegrzyn had to break it to him and, in the process, destroy Erick’s delusions of grandeur. His so-called, buddy-buddy friends had already pointed the finger at him. They weren’t about to take the fall for his stupidities. They were ready to confirm that Erick Almandinger was the trigger man. Yeah, you see, because to get into the Crips you have to kill somebody. Delusions of grandeur, Erick. Delusions of grandeur.

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Erick Almandinger flashing the Crips “C” sign


This takes us to Devin Peterson, Erick’s proto-gangster idol. According to a sentencing memorandum released when Peterson pled guilty to hindering prosecution and evidence tampering in the Grunwald case, Devin fit the gangster role almost perfectly.

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Devin Peterson in court for the Grunwald murder

Devin Peterson had spent half his life breaking the law.

“The defendant’s [Devin Peterson] first known criminal act occurred when he was only 11 years old. Since the age of 15, the defendant has been under near constant supervision as a result of his crimes. As a juvenile, the defendant engaged in multiple serious felonies, including violent crimes such as assault and burglary, as well as drug and property crimes. Of note, much of this conduct occurred while the defendant was under supervision, including the crime for which he has pled guilty. […] The defendant’s criminal history demonstrates a level of narcissism and a lack of compassion for others that is striking. Since becoming a teenager, the defendant has been engaged in a near constant state of criminal behavior. From a review of his criminal history and social media postings, it seems as if the defendant’s goals in life are to get high on a daily basis, take what he wants, and live a thug life.”

Devin did his best to live up to his image. When he lent Erick the gas cans he’d use to torch Grunwald’s Bronco, his gangster-self told Almandiger to “burn that bitch.”

But Peterson couldn’t force himself to complete the one thing he was tasked to do. When Wegrzyn questioned him early on December 2nd, Peterson said he’d received Almandinger’s pistols and taken them to another location. Armed with a search warrant, troopers found two semiautomatic pistols and another weapon — all of them loaded — in a black North Face backpack at Peterson’s home near Wasilla. Busted.

After the discovery, the cops confronted Devin Peterson. He confirmed that David Grunwald was killed by one of the guns in the backpack. Peterson added that Erick Almandinger admitted to killing David Grunwald and had given him the backpack for the purpose of ditching the guns. Game over.


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

Murder on Knik River Rd: 1995 Ford Bronco

David Grunwald’s 1995 Ford Bronco was his proudest possession. There were better vehicles available to him but, with the help of his father, he’d fixed it up. By the time he was done, it was the perfect truck for Alaska: he could go practically anywhere. And for a 16-year-old… That represented a special kind of freedom.

Bronco
David Grunwald’s Ford Bronco

November 16, 2016
After beating David Grunwald mercilessly — he was going in and out of consciousness — Erick and his “crew” were left with a dilemma. They probably knew that they were in trouble (I say probably because their decisions up to this point weren’t exactly stellar). If they stopped right where they were, they surely faced assault charges. Even then, there was the difficulty of what to do with David. Leave him there and call the cops? Unlikely. Take him somewhere and drop him off? How? The only vehicle they had… Was David’s Bronco.

When the four of then guided a woozy David Grunwald to the Bronco, took his car keys and drove off with Dominic Johnson at the wheel, they stepped into oblivion. Erick gave Dominic “random” directions; they ended up near Victoria Mokelke’s house; David pulled himself together long enough to beg that they drop him off there.

They kept driving. Because, of course, if they dropped off David they’d still have his Bronco. Either that or they’d be stuck out there on a frigid November night without transportation. Yeah, right, better to kill the guy.

Bronco

They crossed the Knik River on the Old Glenn Highway bridge, then drifted east into the darkness of Knik River Rd. A little over seven miles later they stopped, marched David Grunwald into the woods and executed him with a single shot to the head.

Erick Almandinger’s “friends” identified him as the shooter. Erick Almandinger alternately claimed Dominic Johnson, and then Austin Barrett, was the shooter. The murder weapon, a stolen 9mm Springfield XDM, belonged to Austin Barrett.

With what they thought to be a dead man in the woods (there was a moment when one of them suggested they go back and make sure), these careless killers now faced a series of decisions. First up, they contacted Devin Peterson, their Crips “expert,” and went to his house to hand off their weapons (the .40 Ruger used to pistol-whip David and the 9mm Springfield used to kill him).

Now they needed to dispose of David Grunwald’s prized Bronco.

The plan they hatched was to take the Bronco into the bush and torch it. Peterson gave them two gas canisters. From there, Erick Almandinger, Dominic Johnson and Bradley Renfro set out to find a gas station. Austin Barrett stayed behind, eventually sleeping in a car outside Devin Peterson’s house.

10:53:55 p.m.: Holiday Gas Station – Store video shows Bradley Renfro placing the gas cans at the pump.

10:54 p.m.: Holiday Gas Station – Store video shows Renfro going inside the gas station.

10:56 p.m.: Holiday Gas Station – Store video shows Dominic Johnson on the phone with Devin Peterson.

Bronco
Dominic Johnson & Bradley Renfro, Holiday Gas (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

11:37 p.m.: Erick Almandinger responds to Victoria Mokelke.

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

12:28 a.m.: Dominic Johnson calls Alaska Cab.

12:55 a.m.: Cab is seen on mini-mart video at Seldon and Church in Palmer.

1:03 a.m.: Cab is seen on mini-mart video at Seldon and Church in Palmer.

3:55 a.m.: Erick Almandinger starts communicating with Alissa Bledsoe as they seek a hideout. Alissa offers her shed.

6:12 a.m.: Alissa tells Almandinger to keep the group quiet; they are drinking and partying in the shed. Almandinger ultimately pees his pants in a drunken stupor.

12:18 p.m.: Ryan Walker calls AST about the burned out Bronco.

Bronco
David Grunwald’s Burned Out Bronco (courtesy Edie Grunwald)

12:38 p.m.: AST Trooper Green arrives at the Bronco’s location.


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