WASILLA — Austin Barrett was found guilty for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Palmer teen David Grunwald after Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath accepted Barrett’s plea bargain.
Barrett received a 65-year sentence with 20 years suspended. He’s serving a mandatory sentence of 15 years at which point he’ll be up for discretionary parole. He’s also eligible for good time computation based on the Department of Corrections’ determinations.
Barrett’s hearing was live streamed through YouTube with victim impact statements included via Zoom meetings Friday morning at the Palmer Courthouse. The proceedings were closed to the public, but anyone was able to watch the hearing live by visiting the Palmer Court’s YouTube channel.
David’s mother Edie Grunwald was present in the courtroom, and the first person to share her victim impact statement.
“None of this has been easy on anyone,” Grunwald said to the court. “Our hearts and souls have been drained over what our son had to endure in the last couple of hours of his life. He was confused, hurt, in pain, crying, not understanding why these four guys were doing this to him. He just wanted to hang out a little but before heading home, to get a little guy time.”
Barrett is the first of four young men, often referred to as “the group” to face sentencing in the David Grunwald Murder trial.
Erick Almandinger, Dominic Johnson and Bradley Renfro have all also been convicted as principals or accomplices in David’s kidnapping, assault and subsequent murder the night of Nov. 13, 2016.
“David had entered the devil’s lair and had no idea what was in store for him,” Edie Grunwald said.
David ended up in a trailer on the property, smoking marijuana with Almandinger, Johnson, Renfro and Barrett. He was locked in the trailer bathroom. When the group let him out, he was pistol-whipped and beaten.
“He opened the door and felt his skull scream,” Grunwald said. “He put his arms up, getting hit and bloody, crying, ‘why? Stop,’ hearing laughter… Dragged to his bronco hearing whispers of guns and killing, pushed into the back seat… and then asked ‘where are the keys?’”
David was forced into his own Ford Bronco, and driven from Almandinger’s Palmer residence to Knik River Road. The group walked David through the forest where he was ultimately shot in the head and died. Grunwald’s Bronco was burned in Wasilla that same evening.
“… a long, long time for any one of these guys to change the course of everyone’s lives. But they stuck to the plan, finally stopping, pulling David out of his own vehicle, walking him deep into the woods with his sweatshirt and slippers on… The group stops, David looks up. I see, feel, hear the click of the trigger, instant noise and searing blackness with white dots. David’s soul is no longer in his body… They left his beaten, broken, and brian blasted body there, an empty shell, slowly oozing what gravity is pulling out. No heartbeat, no breath, no life. They ran away with the intent of no one ever finding him as his body quickly cooled, froze and frostbite settled in,” Grunwald said. “It’s too bad this is what we’re left with but it’s what we have… There’s no do overs. It’s the new normal.”
Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak told the court that it’s fair to say that anyone who’s been in contact with this case over the last four years has had their “lives changed forever.”
“We’ve been pretty lucky in Palmer, when it comes to hearing about these terrible crimes of a similar nature… I think our first thoughts were, ‘something like this could never happen in Palmer,’” Kalytiak said.
Barrett’s defense attorney Craig Howard also indicated that he’s experienced lasting effects resulting from his exposure to the Grunwald murder trial.
“These photographs are in your brain forever,” Howard told the court. “This case has particularly affected me in a lot of ways.”
To date, none of the four main suspects in the Grunwald murder trial have come forward as the shooter. All parties have pointed to each other as the one who pulled the trigger, but no shooter has been decisively narrowed down. It’s become clear to those involved with the case that the true identity of whoever actually shot David that night will never come to light, and that sentiment has been repeated throughout the various proceedings.
“We’re never gonna know that because of the way things went down,” Howard said.
When it was time for the court to hear Barrett’s statement, Grunwald and her husband Ben left the courtroom and didn’t return until he was finished speaking.
Barrett is one of two defendants in the case who took the chance to speak for himself. The other was Renfro during his trial in Fairbanks. Barrett apologized for his actions and said that he would keep the Grunwalds and others close to the victim “in his prayers.”
“I would like to personally to apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Grunwald. I’m sorry and I apologize. I pray for healing, and I hope and ask that you please forgive me,” Barrett said. “I am truly sorry and pray for you all will be able to get through this as well. Also, to my own family, I’m sorry for failing and hurting you in any way; as well as the community of Alaska, and anyone who has or had PTSD from all this tragedy… I regret what has happened and realize it was completely wrong. This tragedy should have never happened, and I pray God will wipe away every tear from everyone’s eyes…”
Heath accepted Barrett’s plea bargain, saying, “He will need strong change in his thinking patterns, because what happened this night was something that society just cannot accept.”
For continued coverage of this case, see upcoming editions of the Frontiersman.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org