A Fairbanks jury began deliberations Friday in the trial of one of four Palmer teens charged in the death of David Grunwald.
Grunwald, 16, of Palmer, went missing Nov. 13, 2016, and the burned-out remains of his Ford Bronco were found the next day. Investigators determined that four of his acquaintances — Bradley Renfro, Dominic Johnson, Erick Almandinger and Austin Barrett — pistol-whipped Grunwald so severely that he could barely walk, put him into his Bronco, drove him to a remote area southeast of Palmer and shot him once in the head. His body was found Dec. 2, 2016, after Johnson led investigators to the site.
Renfro, Johnson, Almandinger and Barrett were charged with first-degree murder, three counts of second-degree murder, kidnapping, first-degree assault, vehicle theft, arson and tampering with physical evidence. Almandinger and Johnson were tried last year and convicted of all nine charges but have yet to be sentenced. Barrett is scheduled to go to trial in April 2020.
A fifth teen, Devin Peterson, was charged with three counts of evidence tampering and one count of hindering prosecution for hiding the two guns used in the crime. Peterson pleaded guilty to all charges in August 2018 and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Renfro’s trial was moved to Fairbanks because of the publicity surrounding Almandinger’s and Johnson’s trials. Opening arguments began Sept. 4 and the jury heard four weeks of testimony — several days of which were from Renfro — before the trial wrapped up with two days of closing arguments Thursday and Friday.
Throughout the trial, Renfro’s defense attorney, Chris Provost, maintained that his client was an unwilling participant in the attack on Grunwald and only went along with it because he was afraid Barrett and Johnson would hurt him, too. During his closing, Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak questioned that assertation.
“We’re going to explore the issue of whether his fear theory is supported by any evidence other than his own testimony,” Kalytiak said, noting the four teens continued to hang out and party in the days and weeks after the murder and “self-documented” that by posting photos together on social media sites. Kalytiak characterized the four as a tight-knit group who were obsessed with gang culture and spent a lot of time drinking and smoking cannabis together.
“This was a group effort. The defense position is that ‘I was the good guy.’ Everybody else was the bad guy, but he is the only good guy in this group of people. But there’s no doubt here that this was a group effort,” Kalytiak said.
Kalytiak noted Renfro seemed to have a “selective memory” of that night because he claimed he couldn’t recall who shot Grunwald but remembered and admitted that he helped load Grunwald into his Bronco, made suggestions on where to take him and volunteered to get gasoline and burn the Bronco after the murder.
Kalytiak repeatedly asked the jury to focus on Renfro’s credibility.
“Just compare him to every other witness that was called by the state and the defense. And when you go through that, ask yourself how many witnesses were confronted by multiple, prior, inconsistent lies? Where does he fall in this category? Is he a truth-teller or a liar? He’s on his fourth narrative; that should be a red flag to begin with,” Kalytiak said.
During his three-hour closing argument Friday, defense attorney Provost tried to pick apart the state’s case piece by piece and said Renfro barely knew Almandinger, Johnson and Barrett. Provost spent some time talking about previous testimony from a doctor about the impulsive nature of the “teenage brain.”
“Teenagers, adolescents or juveniles in that range of 15, 16 or 17 that we’re talking about with this group, it’s just a biological fact that any juvenile’s brains is not going to be fully developed. Whether they are really good kids and come from really stable, consistent homes, they’re still going to have the same normal biological disabilities until they’re fully matured,” Provost said. “Your stability does matter, but generally those characteristics are normal for that age group. What happened to David Grunwald is not normal. I mean, who would argue otherwise? But it doesn’t mean you should disregard the circumstances and (Renfro’s) age at the time.”
Provost said his client’s drug use was the reason his testimony at trial differed in so many ways from his previous statements to troopers.
“When you’re a chronic marijuana smoker, you have short-term memory (loss) but it doesn’t mean those memories are not there. It doesn’t mean that through a therapist or through a lawyer or through a process like this trial that you can never reach those memories again, when you’re forced to face what happened and actually walk through it minute by minute.”
The jury went into deliberations at 3 p.m. Friday and are allowed to continue today while the courthouse is otherwise closed. If a verdict is reached during the weekend, it will be sealed and read in court Monday. If not, deliberation will continue at 8:30 a.m. Monday.
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on twitter: @FDNMcrime.