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 Ruger, 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 Ruger 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.

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 Ruger.

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

Murder on Knik River Rd: What Victoria Knows

It only took a few hours for David Grunwald’s life to take a wrong turn. He went from a leisurely Sunday with family to a sudden, inexplicable disappearance, all in the span of two and a half hours. The only link between these events is his girlfriend, Victoria Mokelke. She is the tenuous through-thread of memory that binds things together. The following timeline shows how quickly things deteriorated on the evening of November 13, 2016.

Sunday, November 13, 2016
David Grunwald spends the day dining out and shopping with his family and girlfriend, Victoria Mokelke. It is, by all accounts, a typical Sunday. The plan is to wrap things up early, because the following day is a school day.

5:40 p.m.: David and Victoria leave his parent’s house, bound for her mother’s house.

5:53 p.m.: David and Victoria pick up his friend David Evans at Pioneer Pizza in Palmer; Evans needs a ride to Erick Almandinger’s house, a request which David is more than happy to fulfill. Erick’s father grows marijuana and Erick seems happy to share it with his friends.

Approximately 6:00 p.m.: After dropping Victoria at her mother’s, Grunwald takes David Evans to the Almandinger’s house, which is close by. David returns to Victoria’s mother’s house, picks up Victoria and her sister, Crystal, then drives them to their father’s house, about 20 minutes away.

6:12 p.m.: David Grunwald stops at a Carrs grocery store to get water; the in-store video captures him entering and leaving the store.

Approximately 6:20 p.m.: David drops off Victoria and Crystal at their father’s house near the Butte. He tells Victoria he might return to the Almandinger’s and “hang out.”

Victoria
David Grunwald & Victoria Mokelke

6:30 p.m.: David calls his mother to get his 9:20 curfew extended. His mother readily agrees: David Grunwald bears all the earmarks of his Christian education — he is polite, considerate and invariably follows the rules set down by his parents. They know he will act responsibly.

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

7:07 p.m.: David shares an Instagram conversation with his friend of one week, Angela Dicus. After an mandatory exchange of greetings, Angela asks David a question:

Angela: Whatchu doin?
David: Smoking a J.
Angela: Damn I wish I was too.

David asks to switch to Snapchat, a precaution no doubt encouraged by the sensitive nature of their conversation and that service’s automatic message delete feature.

8:09 p.m: David sends Angela a Snapchat message, but she is sleeping and doesn’t pick it up until the next day. She never hears from him again.

8:35 p.m.: David Grunwald’s cell phone connects to the network for the last time.

9:40 p.m.: When David hasn’t returned home at the appointed hour, his parents call Victoria Mokelke, awakening her. Victoria says she thinks David left her house an hour earlier.

Fearing he may have rolled his car, Edie and Ben Grunwald twice drive Smith Road near the Mokelke residence without any luck. They then drive to the Palmer Post of the Alaska State Troopers to report David missing.

Victoria later remembers that David said something about going to the Almandinger’s residence.

Approximately 10:49 p.m.: Edie Grunwald contacts Rodney Almandinger, Erick’s father, and asks if he has seen her son David, whom he knows from David’s past visits to the residence. Rodney tells her he hasn’t.

10:50 p.m.: Rodney Almandinger attempts to contact his son via Facebook Messenger.

Victoria
Facebook Messenger chat between Rodney & Erick Almandinger (Click to enlarge)

Murder on Knik River Rd

When I read that David Grunwald was murdered on Knik River Rd, I instinctively harkened back to Robert Hansen. This was, after all, in or near one of Robert Hansen’s primary killing fields. Further research brought several important revelations.

First, Grunwald was killed on the south side of the river, about 7 miles due east of the Old Knik River bridge. So, not in Hansen’s Knik River killing field, but too damned close. Second, law enforcement painted the murder as one where a good kid got mixed up with some bad kids. And this is where the story became profoundly disorienting: 4 white teens, who identified with the Crips gang, of all things, had killed Grunwald execution-style and then torched his car. Let that sink in.

White kids. Crips. Alaska. Alaska?

Knik River Rd


David Grunwald, 16, went missing on November 13, 2016. He dropped off his girlfriend near the Butte, Alaska, in the Mat-Su Valley, early that evening. His parents started to worry about him when he didn’t return home by about 9:30 p.m. Relatives, friends and helpful strangers mounted a concerted search, with few initial leads, for a home-schooled teen described as punctual and responsible.

Knik River Rd
David Grunwald (courtesy Anchorage Daily News; photo Edith Grunwald)

Troopers found Grunwald’s 1995 Ford Bronco around noon the next day, burned to the metal and up a dirt track at the base of the Talkeetna Mountains north of Wasilla.

Knik River Rd
David Grunwald’s 1995 Bronco (courtesy KTVA-TV)

That was about 21 miles from the house on Smith Road where David dropped off his girlfriend, according to a route search by his father, Ben. Also, at least one cellphone “ping” from David’s phone was tracked to a tower near Palmer in the hours after he went missing.

In early December of 2016, four teens were arrested and charged as adults in David’s murder, after one of them directed troopers to his body, near Knik River Rd, south of the Butte, Alaska. According to trooper interviews, 16-year-old suspect Erick Almandinger said Grunwald came to his house on Esty Drive in Palmer on Nov. 13 “to drink and smoke [pot]” in a camper trailer in the yard.

At one point, Almandinger told troopers he left the trailer and went into the house. He said a friend, identified only as “D.J.” in the charging document, messaged him and asked him to bring a gun back to the trailer.

“Almandinger said he brought a .40 caliber semi-automatic handgun to the trailer and handed it to D.J., at which time D.J. bludgeoned D.G. with the pistol,” Trooper Sgt. Wegrzyn wrote in the affidavit.

Almandinger alleged that the other teen loaded Grunwald into the Bronco and they drove to the Butte, according to the affidavit. On the way, Grunwald was going in and out of consciousness and unable to defend himself, the affidavit said; during moments of semi-lucidity, he asked to be taken to his girlfriend’s house in the Butte, but his kidnappers bypassed her road and kept going.

Ten minutes later they pulled over on Knik River Rd and walked into the woods with Grunwald.

Knik River Rd
MAP: David Grunwald’s Disappearance (courtesy Anchorage Dispatch News; Hansen overlay Leland E. Hale)

“Almandinger admitted he went with D.J. as they escorted D.G. into the woods and acknowledged that D.G. was pleading for his life as they walked,” the investigator wrote.

Almandinger said D.J. killed Grunwald, according to the affidavit. He later changed his story and identified the shooter as another 16-year-old, identified in charging documents only as “A.B.”

Almandinger said he decided to destroy the evidence, and told troopers that the pair got some gasoline and drove the Bronco up a 4-wheeler trail off Sitze Road, and burned it.

They later tried to destroy the bloody evidence in the camper by burning a carpet and applying bleach to its bloodied interior. Almandinger said he then stayed in a friend’s shed for several days.

Wegrzyn wrote that it was when he contacted D.J. on Friday, December 2, 2016, that he was led to where Grunwald was killed — but only after the teen consulted with an attorney. Another investigator found a single 9mm shell casing at the murder scene.

Almandinger showed little remorse during the interrogation, Wegrzyn said. The only motive cited by Almandinger was that Grunwald “had smoked all his weed,” the sergeant wrote. “He said they didn’t get any money.”

As it turned out, Almandinger wasn’t telling troopers everything he knew.

Credit: Zaz Hollander, Anchorage Daily News, “Documents shed new light on slain Palmer teen’s final moments,” published December 5, 2016.