PALMER — As the trial for Dominic Johnson stretched into its third week, the prosecution showed the jury how many lies they were told during the investigation of the murder of Palmer teen David Grunwald.
Johnson is one of four accused in the murder of Grunwald on Nov. 13, 2016.
The two major pieces of evidence that were displayed against Johnson on Wednesday were an audio clip of the interview between Alaska State Troopers, Johnson, and his mother, and tracking data on one of Johnson’s cell phones between Nov. 21 and Nov. 24 of 2016.
Troopers Shayne Calt and Andrew Ballesteros were both called to the stand to provide testimony. On Nov. 15, 2016, they found the Ford Bronco that had been disposed of off a remote trail following the murder. On Nov. 21, 2016, Calt met with the state fire marshal who was examining the Bronco inside of a secure storage facility. The next day Calt received surveillance footage from the night of the murder that was shown to jurors on Wednesday. On November 23, 2016, troopers contacted a minor in connection to the group who had given them shelter following the murder. On Nov. 24, 2016, after troopers had been tracking Johnson’s movements through his phone, he was contacted at the Carrs/Safeway store in Wasilla after being observed using the free wifi to make calls and texts for about an hour. On November 26 of that year, troopers again contacted the minor who was reported missing, and found her in the back seat of a car with Bradley Renfro. On November 30, troopers contacted Austin Barrett, Devin Peterson, and Dominic Johnson at a house in Wasilla where they seized two more cell phones.
Johnson, Renfro, Barrett and Erick Almindinger were all charged with murder in the Grunwald case. Almandinger has already been convicted and will be sentenced in 2019. Renfo and Barrett will go to trial in 2019.
Grunwald’s body was discovered on Dec. 2, 2016, after an all-day effort. Troopers observed Barrett leave the Valley Hotel at 9:49 and return at 10:15 a.m., before Sergeant Tony Wegrzyn sent a text message and the group attempted to flee. Already on alert for signs of gang affiliation, Calt observed Barrett with a blue bandana sticking out of his back pocket.
One piece of evidence allowed jurors not just the ability to see the murder weapon, but to feel it. Wegrzyn cocked the gun back to allow 14 of the 16 jurors to dry fire the pistol. After Wegrzyn had explained all of the limitations of the gun, the difference between the Springfield 9mm used to shoot Grunwald and the Ruger 40 used to pistol whip him, the weights, ammunition capacities and safety features, each juror held the gun in their right hand, pointed it at the ground and squeezed the trigger. Of the 14, two jurors in particular took their time squeezing the trigger and determining how much force it took to pull. One juror softly exclaimed to himself, “wow,” after pulling the trigger and hearing the ‘click.’
A video was produced as evidence that was sent on Snapchat and appeared to be Almandinger intoxicated in the shed behind the home of an acquaintance a few nights after the murder.
“Erick is that piss?,” Johnson can be heard saying in the background, following with expletives.
The juvenile acquaintance who lived at the home testified about the events of the days following the murder. The girl said Almandinger carried marijuana and alcohol with him when he returned to the shed. She confirmed that the group would throw up gang signs frequently and use versions of a racial slur in common conversation with one another.
“Erick got really drunk and ended up puking on himself and peeing all over himself so Bradley carried him to the camper,” the juvenile said.
The juvenile also testified that Barrett had burned one of his sweatshirts in a fire pit in the back yard. However, the boys that were staying in the shed were ill-prepared for the winter weather, and kept asking for more clothes to wear. Assistant District Attorney Melissa Wininger-Howard reminded the minor of her testimony to the grand jury in 2016 that she observed Johnson as being paranoid after the group was found at the Valley Hotel.
“He was like ‘I’m going to jail,” Wininger-Howard asked.
“Yes,” the juvenile said.
Ballasteros provided audio he took of an interview with Johnson and his grandmother outside of Carrs/Safeway on Nov. 24, 2016, when his first phone was seized. Ballasteros and Calt are heard speaking with Johnson and his grandmother. Johnson is told that his phone is going to be seized, even though the troopers that had contacted him had not yet secured a warrant.
“Can he erase the text messages on there,” Johnson’s grandmother asked.
She asserted that she used the phone and did not want troopers seeing her personal business. Ballasteros and Calt were aware prior to questioning Johnson that he had made the call to a cab company from his phone near the burnt Bronco. Johnson denies being at the Bronco, and claims that he was at Almandinger’s stepmother’s house when he was kicked out and called for a cab. He told troopers that he saw on Facebook that the Bronco was burned near the Little Susitna River, which was not where he claimed to be. Johnson claimed that he was unsure if anyone had used his phone that night. Johnson denied having known Grunwald at all.
“I literally never spoke one word to him,” Johnson said.
Johnson claims that he had not even seen Grunwald in years.
Those were not the only lies Johnson told troopers during the investigation.
On Nov. 30, 2016, troopers searched Almandinger’s property, including the travel trailer where Grunwald was beaten.
“When we opened the door we were basically overcome with the smell of bleach,” Calt said.
Upon contacting Barrett, Peterson, and Johnson in Wasilla on the Nov. 30, 2016, troopers observed two cell phones, one black and one green. The phones were then hidden in a cabinet, but later discovered. Johnson denied hiding the phones. He then told troopers that he did not know why he had hidden the phones.
Contact Frontiersman reporter Tim Rockey at firstname.lastname@example.org.