PALMER — Austin Barrett pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the death of 16-year-old David Grunwald at his change of plea hearing at the Palmer Courthouse Wednesday, Feb. 5.
Barrett is the last of four suspects to face trial for Grunwald’s murder in November of 2016. Barrett’s circle of peers — often referred to as “the group” during proceedings — Erick Almandinger, Dominic Johnson and Bradley Renfro have all been convicted of first-degree murder.
Barrett will be sentenced at a later date yet to be determined. He’s facing a 65-year sentence with 20 years suspended, 45 years to serve, and 10 years of probation.
Barrett’s plea followed a resolution agreement between his defense attorney, Craig Howard, and Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak.
Howard and Kalytiak agreed to negotiate a possible resolution after Barrett’s grand jury indictment and interview with Alaska State Troopers were thrown out at a Jan. 13 hearing.
Palmer Judge Gregory Heath ruled that investigating Troopers Lt. Mike Ingram and Sgt. Tony Wegrzyn failed to acknowledge Barrett’s invocation to remain silent when he “pleaded the fifth” toward the beginning of the interview.
Heath also dismissed Barrett’s seven grand jury indictment charges since they relied on statements made during that interview.
The Jan. 13 ruling stemmed from an evidentiary hearing in December of 2019. During the proceedings, Howard argued that his client “unequivocally and unambiguously” invoked his right to remain silent when he “pleaded the fifth” toward the beginning of his December of 2016 interview with Ingram and Wegrzyn.
Heath decided that without Barrett’s inculpatory statements and codefendant’s testimony regarding his presence during the assault, there was little admissible evidence left for the seven grand jury charges.
Barrett’s grand jury charges were dropped but he remained in custody while his attorney and the state negotiated the resolution. The state could have went in for a reindictment if they couldn’t come to an agreement with the defense but in the end, they two sides made a deal.
“I believe we have reached an agreement,” Kalytiak told the court.
Kalytiak listed numerous factors that helped the state come to an agreement with the defense, including Barrett’s signs of remorse, and being a witness for another case involving a 16-year-old murdered in cold blood, Frankie Woodford.
Six months before Grunwald was murdered, Damien Peterson shot and killed Woodford. Barrett’s testimony ultimately aided the state’s efforts to convict Peterson.
Barrett agreed to the final terms of the plea agreement and submitted his plea to the court Wednesday. Heath presided telephonically and accepted Barrett’s guilty plea and waiver to his right to a grand jury indictment.
Heath said they’ll likely hold a sentencing hearing for Barrett some time in October.
It’s been over three years since Grunwald’s frozen body was discovered with defensive wounds and a single gunshot wound to the head in the woods off Knik River Road. All four members of “the group” are still awaiting their final sentencing.
Kalytiak said that he didn’t object to sentencing Barrett first. That way the state could focus on the remaining three cases.
Grunwald’s mother Edie Grunwald said that given the developments with Barrett’s case and all the legal technicalities, the final result was acceptable.
“I think Ben [Grunwald’s father] and I, we feel good with what the prosecutor had worked out with the defense, given all the variables,” Edie said.
Despite all four suspects being convicted for Grunwald’s murder, the one who actually pulled the trigger has yet to be revealed. The true identity if the shooter may never come to light.
“We don’t know who the shooter is, that actual trigger puller, and he [Barrett] may well likely be that and that’s just something he’s going to have to face with the other three I guess,” Edie said. “I mean, usually everybody just spills their guts but this crew, they’ve been extremely deceitful and vile. Austin Barrett, according to the district attorney, he’s probably the one that has even shown an inkling of remorse.”
Now that everyone has been convicted, Edie said they can focus on the sentencing hearings. She said they’re providing victim impact statements for pre-sentencing reports in the four cases.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at email@example.com