Almandinger cries as case handed off to jury
For two and a half weeks, jurors in Erick Almandinger’s murder trial have listened to emotional testimony, forensic evidence and seen graphic crime scene and autopsy pictures.
Now, Erick’s fate is in their hands.
On Wednesday morning, Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak presented his closing arguments to the jury.
Kalytiak said there’s no way to definitely prove it was Erick who pulled the trigger and killed David Grunwald. But, he said Erick was a willing participant in all of the events and is guilty of murder by aiding and abetting the crime.
"This case was so over the top-- it was so cruel—[that] none of the participants are going to admit to being the person who shot David Grunwald,” Kalytiak told the jurors.
Erick’s defense attorney, Jon Iannaccone, claimed his client was too scared to stop the crime and was just along for the ride.
The defendant had a rare display of emotion Wednesday with tears running down his cheek as Iannacone wrapped up his argument.
"Once he gets in the car, what’s he supposed to do? Jump out of the car in the middle of nowhere?” Iannaccone rhetorically asked the jury. "He’s not in a position to stop it at that point. All these events happen like, bang bang. It’s like David is suddenly beaten in the car and things quickly get out of hand.”
BEATEN AND EXECUTED
Almandinger is one of four people accused of shooting and killing 16-year-old David Grunwald on November 13, 2016.
He, along with Dominic Johnson, Bradley Renfro and Austin Barrett are each charged with first-degree murder. Investigators said the group pistol-whipped David in Almandinger’s shed with Erick’s .40 gun.
Troopers said the four then drove David out to Knik River Road and executed him in the woods with a 9mm gun that belonged to Barrett.
A massive search effort ensued for weeks after David failed to show up for curfew that night. His Bronco was found burned off of Sitze Road in Wasilla the following day.
On December 2, 2016, Dominic Johnson led troopers to the pullout near mile 7 on Knik River Road where David’s body lay frozen and covered in fresh snow.
Erick Almandinger was arrested that day and charged with murder.
The morning David’s autopsy pictures were shown in court, his mother, Edie, sat in the second row, tears welling up in her eyes.
Her husband, Ben, clutched her hand. Both left the courtroom before the pictures were displayed.
Autopsy pictures show David had seven blunt force trauma injuries to his head and 14 defensive wounds to his arms.
The State Medical Examiner testified the bullet entered the upper right corner of his head near his hairline, traveled through the right side of the brain before exiting out the back of David’s head.
"Without the injury from the gunshot wound, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, he should have been able to recover fully,” Ken Gallagher said.
Erick’s first day of trial began with Grunwald’s girlfriend, Victoria Mokelke, testifying about her last moments with her boyfriend.
Through tears, she described the frantic search that followed when David didn’t return home.
"It was restless nights for weeks and days. I didn’t sleep for days and days looking for him. We were hoping for anything. David’s dad and mom didn’t sleep the whole time,” Mokelke said.
When she was excused from the witness stand, Mokelke burst into tears and rushed into the arms of her loved ones.
David’s parents took the stand on the second day of trial.
Edie was stoic in her testimony. She told the court investigators asked for David’s dental records and his toothbrush for a DNA sample after the search had gone on for a few weeks.
“At that point, we knew this wasn’t going to end well,” Edie said.
David’s father, Ben, became angry when the defense attorney tried to interrupt him while he was talking about taking David for flying lessons the summer before he died.
Minutes later he broke down when he recalled the afternoon nearly three weeks after his son disappeared.
"I got a call from the trooper at 3:44,” Ben said after a long pause. "I asked if it’s a personal favor to call me before he came over to the house. On December 2, 2016, he arrived at 4:02 and had told us that David had been kidnapped and murdered and tortured."
Like many teens, Erick was very active on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.
Pictures and messages he sent to friends were used as evidence throughout his trial.
Facebook messages first came into play during his father Rodney Almandinger’s testimony.
The night David went missing, Rodney sent a series of about 40 unanswered messages to Erick between 10 p.m. and midnight.
When Erick finally responded, he said he hadn’t seen David at all that night.
Rodney also messaged his son the day David’s Bronco was found.
"However, you heard that the Bronco was found, did that raise some concern on your part other than people not being at home,” Kalytiak asked Rodney.
"No. It did not raise anything really to me because they were not together, apparently,” Rodney responded.
Erick’s message exchange with Dominic Johnson was also on full display for jurors.
Alaska State Trooper Dustin Jorgensen asked Facebook to “preserve” Erick’s Facebook account from the day David went missing.
"That way it’s set aside so it’s not changed,” he explained to the jury.
Investigators recovered messages from the night of November 13, 2016, where Johnson asked Erick to borrow his gun around 8 o’clock that night.
When Jorgensen did a manual search of Erick’s tablet weeks later, that conversation-- and another from November 21-- had been deleted.
Jorgensen said the amount of data acquired from all the suspects’ accounts was overwhelming.
"It’s the largest volume of social media records in my seven years in the unit I’ve ever had to look through or analyze. It was huge. If printed out it would take up volumes,” he said.
GANG-RELATED SNAPCHAT PICTURES
Erick’s Snapchat account was filled with pictures troopers said depicted “gang-related” activity.
Several of the pictures shown in court show Erick wearing a blue bandana and holding up a “C” sign, which represents the Crips, a California-based gang.
In one picture taken or modified about one month before Grunwald’s murder, Erick posted a picture of himself with the word, “killahs” superimposed on top of it.
Trooper Jorgensen said he found those pictures on a Snapchat folder on Erick’s tablet but said the application itself appeared to have been deleted.
“During the manual examination of the phone, I did not see the Snapchat app-- which has a very notable, ghost shaped yellow icon.”
Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn with the Alaska State Troopers testified earlier that week he had seen Erick delete something off the tablet when he arrived with a warrant to collect it.
"His hands were shaking, I told him to power it off. His hands were shaking to the point where it was difficult to power it off,” Sgt. Wegrzyn said.
Trooper Jorgensen said Almandinger also searched the internet for Crips-related jewelry and the meaning behind the gang’s six-pointed star. At one point he looked up “unique Crips-related items” on Etsy, a website for handmade goods.
HOMELESSNESS AND TRAP HOUSES
Erick said he lived in trap houses, or drug houses, during the summer of 2016.
In a Facebook message exchange, Rodney asked his son if David lived in trap houses that summer, too.
“No, he was a good kid,” Erick responded.
Rodney said it wasn’t uncommon for his son to stay away from home for days at a time and missed school regularly.
Dominic Johnson’s mother, Misty Johnson, testified her son wasn’t living at home either but said he’s been staying at his grandmother’s house.
She invited suspects Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro over for Thanksgiving that year because they were homeless.
Defense attorney Iannaccone brought up a volatile exchange she had with her son just two days before David’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 texted her son.
She said she was upset because he’s been hanging out with people she didn’t approve of.
"I wouldn’t let them over and we got into a heated argument,” she told the jury.
"Were you aware he was smoking marijuana with them?” Kalytiak asked.
"That’s the reason I was upset,” Misty replied.
Kalytiak said the state didn’t need to prove Erick was the person who pulled the trigger; they merely had to prove he was an accomplice to the crime and helped in all the actions that led to David’s death.
He points to Erick’s behavior after the murder as a willingness to participate.
"They’re partying, they’re celebrating. The defendant fooled around with a girl the next day. They’re getting drunk while the dead boy is in the woods and everyone is looking for him,” Kalytiak said.
Iannaccone said Erick is not guilty of murder because the state didn’t prove he was the principal shooter.
He admits Erick committed the other crimes he’s charged with, vehicle theft and arson for stealing and burning Grunwald’s Bronco.
"People cover up crimes and people cover things up even if they’re not guilty. It’s human nature, and the law recognizes that and it only punishes people who have a guilty intent,” Iannaccone said.
Kalytiak asked the jury to return guilty verdicts on all charges.
“Basically, you’re here to find the truth of what really happened."
Questions or comments about this story? Email reporter Heather Hintze.
Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.