PALMER (KTUU) - Trial has begun for Erick Almandinger, the 18-year-old facing murder charges for his role in the death of a classmate in 2016 when the two were both just 16 years old.
Almandinger is one of five young men facing charges in the case, though their trials are being held separately. Almandinger and three others face the more serious charge of murder, while a fifth faces charges of tampering with evidence and hindering prosecution.
During opening statements Monday, prosecutors said Almandinger played a critical role in the murder of David Grunwald, regardless of who pulled the trigger.
"They as a group made unanimous decisions to do all these things," said Palmer district attorney Roman Kalytiak. "We will prove to you during this trial that they felt super comfortable with their decisions, very at ease with their decisions, as if it was totally natural for them."
Almandinger's defense argued in opening statements Monday that Almandinger's only crimes were committed after the murder, that the murder weapon was not his and that he was too scared to stop Grunwald's murder from happening.
"Erick Almandiner is not guilty as the principal. What do I mean by that? He’s not the one who pulled the trigger. Erick Almandinger, is not guilty as an accomplice. Why? Because he did not have the criminal purpose for David to die, did not have the criminal purpose to kill David Grunwald," said defense attorney Jon Iannaccone.
"Several things Erick Almandinger did were criminal. He covered up what Austin Barrett and Dominic Johnson did. He lied to the police, helped set the Bronco on fire, and Erick’s guilty of crimes for every one of those things, but it’s important to keep in mind that Erick’s crimes all occurred after David Grunwald was killed," he added.
Almandinger's most serious charges include Murder 1, kidnapping, Murder 2 and tampering with evidence. Dominic Johnson and Bradley Perrigin-Renfro, both also 16 at the time of Grunwald's death, face the same charges.
Austin Barrett, who was 19 at the time, is charged with Murder 1, kidnapping, and Murder 2.
Devin Peterson, who was 18 at the time, is charged with tampering with evidence and hindering prosecution.
David Grunwald was reported missing by his parents on November 13, 2016. His parents had expected him home after he dropped his girlfriend off at her home. Grunwald's Ford Bronco was found burned near a trailhead on November 14.
First to take the witness stand Monday morning was Grunwald's girlfriend Victoria Mokelke, who was one of the last people to see him alive. Mokelke had spent the day with Grunwald and his family, and Grunwald dropped her off at her father's home that evening before heading to Almandinger's house.
During her testimony, Mokelke read from the numerous Facebook messages she sent Almandinger in the days following David's disappearance.
"I said 'Hey man, if you have any details on the night David went missing, please please tell the cops, I haven’t slept in days, I’ve had to take sleeping pills every night, they obviously didn’t work too well. I’m completely heartbroken and lost,' " Mokelke read to the court, holding back tears.
The jury then heard testimony from a few of the investigators involved in the case, including Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Tony Wergzyn, with the Mat Su major crimes unit. He described executing a search warrant on Almandinger's tablet and finding several gang-related images and posts on social media.
"Generally the color blue was a theme, the C, the Crip sign, there were Internet searches essentially Crip-themed Internet searches," he told the court.
The trial continues Tuesday. Channel 2 will have the latest.