The trial for two suspects in David Grunwald’s murder has been split up, just two days before it was expected to begin in Fairbanks.

Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro were supposed to go to trial together. Co-defendants Erick Almandinger and Dominic Johnson have already been convicted of beating and killing 16-year-old Grunwald in November 2016.

At an evidentiary hearing on Thursday, Barrett’s defense attorney, Craig Howard, raised several issues contesting statements Barrett made to investigators. Howard filed a motion on Aug. 6 alleging troopers illegally detained Barrett and then the teen made a possibly self-incriminating statement during the interview.

Judge Gregory questioned why Howard waited to file the motion since he’s had the case for several years.

“Mr. Howard, back in March, I still don’t understand why this motion could have been filed a long time ago. There’s no justification for it,” Judge Heath said.

Howard went into a lengthy monologue about his heavy case load and personal family issues as the reason he was not able to do the motions sooner. He said when the case came in, back in January 2017, he was dealing with nine murders throughout the state.

He said staff at his office were new at the time and he had to take Barrett’s murder case.

“I don’t need the high-profile cases but I had to take this because I couldn’t give it to somebody else,” Howard said.

Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak said he didn’t want to force the two suspects to go to trial together.

“I’m being honest with the court my choice, hearing what I’ve heard this morning, let’s go on the Renfro case,” Kalytiak said.

Howard went on to plead his illegal seizure case, saying troopers did not have probable cause to handcuff Barrett on Dec. 7, 2016, a day before the grand jury was scheduled to meet.

Alaska State Troopers Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn and Mike Ingram both testified during the evidentiary hearing that Almandinger and Renfro said Barrett was present for the beating and murder. The night of the murder, Barrett was dropped off at Devin Peterson’s house before the rest of the group burned Grunwald’s Bronco. Peterson and his mother told troopers Barrett stayed at the Peterson house that night. Peterson later pleaded guilty to hiding the murder weapons used in the killing.

Troopers said all of those interviews played into part of their reason for probable cause to take Barrett to the trooper post for an interview.

Howard told the judge all of the people in the case are not trustworthy and that’s why troopers didn’t have probable cause to seize Barrett.

“All these kids, including my client, [are] drugging, drinking, cheating, stealing, whoring punks. They have no concept of morality,” Howard said.

Kalytiak responded to Howard’s argument and said many of the people involved placed Barrett at the scene of the crime.

“They all verify that David Grunwald was taken in his own vehicle to his own death. And they all verify where it happened and they all verified they were the participants,” Kalytiak said “Say what you will about whether they’re psychopaths or not or criminals or not, whether they’re liars or not. Even liars and even psychopaths in this case agree to the basic facts.”

Judge Heath decided to sever the trials.

“This should have been done quite a while ago. I think there are issues that could have easily arisen at trial which could have made problems for the court and could have ended up in a mistrial,” Judge Heath said.

Howard said he could be ready for trial by January.

David Grunwald's mother, Edie Grunwald, said she supported the judge's decision.  

“Early on we thought it should have been severed. You’ve got someone who was 19 [Barrett] at the time of the murder and someone who was 16 [Renfro] at the time of the murder and having them both together like that complicated things,” Edie said. “Even though it happened today, right before we’re heading to Fairbanks I’m still glad because it gives each defendant their own opportunity with their own trial without being convoluted.”

Jury selection for Renfro’s trial begins Aug. 26 in Fairbanks.

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