Parents of suspect in Grunwald murder testify
Murder suspect Erick Almandinger’s parents took the stand during the third day of his evidentiary hearing.
Erick is one of four young men charged with the kidnapping and murder of Palmer teenager David Grunwald in November 2016.
His defense attorney, Jon Iannaccone, from the Kenai Office of Public Advocacy, 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.
It will be up to Judge Gregory Heath to determine what evidence jurors will see at Erick's trial.
Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn testified during all three days of the hearing. In his motion, Iannaccone said information Sgt. Wegrzyn got during the interviews shouldn’t be admissible because “police tricked Erick’s family into getting Erick to make a statement.”
Last Monday, state prosecutors played the video of Sgt. Wegrzyn’s December 2, 2016, interview with Erick where his father can be heard shouting at his son.
"They said that you shot him. You pulled the trigger!” Rodney Almandinger said.
Later in that interview, Erick asked to take a polygraph test. State prosecutors did not play the tape of the polygraph test but did play audio with Erick recorded when the test was finished.
Sgt. Wegrzyn said Erick "failed it miserably”.
Erick maintained his innocence.
"If everything I say is going to be taken as a lie.. .all I’m going to say is I didn’t f—-ing shoot David Grunwald and you guys are telling me I did and I didn’t,” he told troopers.
At the end of the post-polygraph interview, Sgt. Wegrzyn told Erick he was only charging him with murder and kidnapping "because it makes my paperwork easy and keeps you in jail".
"I understand, thank you,” Erick replied.
"Don’t thank me. I’m just doing my job,” Sgt. Wegrzyn responded. “It’s actually a pretty shitty one because I have to take you away from her (mom) and your dad. I get to tell Edie and Ben their son is dead and I found him covered in snow-- 200 feet off the Knik River Road-- executed for no good reason. So don’t thank me. It’s not been a fantastic night for anybody.”
Iannaccone asked Rodney to testify about pictures he found on his son’s social media accounts.
One picture the state wants to use as evidence is a “selfie” Erick took with the word “killahs” written over it. While investigators found that picture during the investigation when they received a search warrant for his tablet, Rodney said the timestamp on the picture shows it was taken before Grunwald was killed.
"It’s got the date October 20, 2016, at 12:52 p.m., which is school time,” Rodney explained.
Rodney said he looked at the Snapchat account for the first time last week but told District Attorney Roman Kalytiak if he had seen the picture earlier he wouldn’t have thought anything of it.
“Let’s say you found it in October-- what would you have done about that?” Kalytiak asked.
“Actually nothing because he would tell me how he used to play video games... he’s a 'killah' of video games because he was really good at World of Warcraft,” Rodney explained.
He added the “young kids have girls, so at the time I would only think he was a ‘killah' of love”.
Erick’s mother, Chrystal Carlson, was asked to testify about her experience being with Erick in the December 2, 2016, interview.
During her time on the stand, Carlson talked about how she hadn’t seen Erick in person six months prior to his arrest for Grunwald’s murder. She said Erick began using marijuana when he was 14, but she had a “zero tolerance” policy for that at her house. Erick had been staying with his father before his arrest.
“I figured he was 16 and there wasn’t much I could do to drag him home,” Carlson told state prosecutors.
She also told them she believed Erick was high on drugs during the December 2, 2016, interview and polygraph test.
"At the end, right before he was arrested, I was alone with him-- right after the polygraph I asked him then when was the last time you smoked pot and he said-- [his] response was, 'I’m high as f— right now,'” Carlson said.
In his motion, Iannaccone said Erick’s parents were used to “break his will” during that interview. He wrote investigators “did this by lying to his family to make them think Erick could be treated with leniency if he spoke to the police and by exploiting the fact this was such a high-profile event in the community.”
Carlson testified her goal during that interview was to get Erick to talk with troopers.
"I believed that they had already made their case and it was done, and the only chance he had was to try to give that 100 percent cooperation, which was to tell all the details of what he knew and that needed to line up with the evidence they had,” Carlson explained.
Sgt. Wegrzyn told the court at that point during the investigation he had spoken with Devin Peterson, Erick’s friend who has since pleaded guilty to hiding the murder weapons, but had not yet interviewed Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro, who are also charged in Grunwald’s murder.
During the December 2, 2016, interview Carlson told troopers she “knew nothing about this kid.”
In court, she elaborated her son had changed since she last saw him in person.
“He seemed very different. He ran away, wasn’t coming home. That’s not the kid whose biggest struggle was he didn’t make the basketball team. That’s the kind of kid I was used to,” Carlson said.
Iannaccone and Kalytiak also have different ideas of what kind of and how many photographs jurors should see during the trial.
Kalytiak said his photos are broken up into three categories: pictures of Grunwald’s body where it was found in the woods, close up pictures of Grunwald’s hands and arms taken during an autopsy that show his injuries from being pistol-whipped and pictures of his head that show he was executed.
He said all that evidence shows this was a planned attack.
“It’s really about a stupid, vicious, aggressive beating, and to make it worse, a decision to murder him so no one would get in trouble for the beating,” Kalytiak said.
Iannaccone argued the graphic pictures aren’t necessary for the case.
“I don’t anticipate contesting the cause of death as a gunshot wound; I don’t anticipate contesting David was pistol-whipped, causing severe injuries,” Iannaconne said.
He said he wanted to see fewer photos admitted into evidence and asked the ones that were allowed be in black and white and smaller versions.
Iannaccone said the pictures might skew the jury’s perception of Erick, which is important because there are still so many factors in the case.
“There’s (sic) text messages from Dominic Johnson asking for the .40 gun. The 9mm gun, which is the other gun that was used to hit David with-- that was Austin Barrett’s gun.”
Judge Heath told the attorneys he hoped to issue a decision sometime in the next month.
Erick is still scheduled to go to trial May 1.
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