Austin Barrett becomes first of 4 killers to receive sentence for David Grunwald’s murder
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In a hearing conducted over Zoom and livestreamed on YouTube Friday, Austin Barrett became the first of four convicted killers to be sentenced for his role in the kidnapping, beating and murder of Palmer teenager David Grunwald.
The hearing came a week after the four-year anniversary of the brutal crime was committed on Nov. 13, 2016.
Appearing in a yellow prison jumpsuit and a black face mask, Barrett, now 23, sat at a distance from his defense attorney in a space typically reserved for a jury.
Prosecutors, parents Ben and Edie Grunwald, and Judge Gregory Heath were also present in the courtroom, and some of David Grunwald’s extended family members appeared remotely via Zoom.
The hearing began with poignant, tearful victim impact statements. Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak explained why the state entered into a plea agreement in the case. Barrett’s defense attorney, Craig Howard, spoke about the future, when his client will eventually face a parole board and release from custody.
Barrett read an apology.
Then Judge Gregory Heath accepted the plea deal, sentencing him to 45 years to serve.
Separate juries convicted each of the three other defendants — Erick Almandinger, Dominic Johnson and Bradley Renfro — of first-degree murder.
State prosecutors have said the group pistol-whipped David Grunwald in a camper before driving him out to a location along Knik River Road and executing him with a single shot to the head.
The state has not been able to prove who pulled the trigger, and a motive for the killing remains unknown.
Barrett, the last suspect headed to trial, took a plea agreement earlier this year after his attorney successfully argued state prosecutors should not be allowed to use statements Barrett made to investigators against him at trial.
Friday, Kalytiak said Barrett could be considered lucky. Prosecutors were confident about taking the other cases to trial and prepared to fight just as hard in Barrett’s case, but were not as sure they would prevail.
A nearly 2-hour interview between Barrett and Alaska State Troopers recorded on Dec. 7, 2016 — a day before the case was presented to a grand jury — was played in court months ago, as Howard argued it should be suppressed.
During the interview, Barrett is heard asking investigators, “Hypothetically speaking, if I was going to let you guys know anything, am I gonna go to jail for life, even though I didn’t do it?”
Barrett, emotional at times, also told them he was concerned about what the world will think of him and said he didn’t want his name to be in the news.
“I just don’t want to look like a bad person,” he said, later adding, “I just don’t want my name involved. I want to be able to get a job and be a normal person.”
Howard successfully argued that troopers violated Barrett’s right to remain silent and that the interview was obtained illegally.
Without Barrett’s own statements and considering the fact that he did not have a cell phone with him at the time of the murder, Kalytiak said taking the case to trial would be a gamble, something both parties decided to avoid.
Barrett pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder and agreed to a 45-year sentence followed by 10 years of probation.
‘What is justice?’
A larger than life portrait of David Grunwald sat on display next to his parents during Friday’s hearing.
Edie Grunwald addressed the court first. Her victim impact statement detailed what she’s learned over the past four years about that last hours of David Grunwald’s life.
“These particular murderers should not have a second chance,” said Edie Grunwald. “They need to bear the consequences of their actions. What they did was heinous.”
She also spoke about her joy in realizing she was pregnant with her first and only biological child at 37, the way they raised David Grunwald, his many interests and what he might have accomplished in life had he lived.
“What many people do not understand is that this thing is forever,” she said. “There’s no do overs.”
David Grundwald’s grandmother called Barrett “evil.” His aunt cried as she recounted memories of having to help her sister put up missing signs during the weeks they were searching for him.
“He was valued. He was real. He was loved by a big family,” said Cheri Ruiz.
Ben Grunwald said he wanted to stress that his son’s murder was not the result of fun that went awry but rather a premeditated killing.
“What is justice? Do I take a cup of justice out to my son’s grave? Will he have justice then? Or is justice just an idea?” he asked. “Your honor, I don’t come here seeking justice today. Your honor, I come seeking punishment.”
After serving 15 years of his sentence, defense attorney Craig Howard said his client will be eligible to apply for discretionary parole. Considering credit for time already served, that will happen 11 years from now.
Howard said he promised Barrett he will show up to his parole board hearing in person to advocate for him, a promise he’s never made to a client before.
“He’s not getting a great deal,” said Howard. “I myself, I’m trying to save a young man’s life so that he can get out there and maybe try to do it again and salvage something and be an asset to society.”
Howard presented a theory that David Grunwald “imprinted” on Erick Almandinger, leading to his introduction to a world much different than the one he was raised in.
Howard said representing Barrett in the case has caused him psychic damage and a photo of David Grunwald will live in his mind forever. He said he needs closure and hopes to one day visit David Grunwald’s grave.
“There’s my one request, and if [the Grundwalds] don’t want me to do that, I can fully understand,” he said.
When it came time for Barrett to speak, Kalytiak told the judge that Edie and Ben Grunwald are interested in knowing the truth, but not hearing an apology.
They chose to leave the room before Barrett read his statement.
“I would like to personally apologize to Mr. And Mrs. Grunwald,” he began. “I’m sorry, and apologize. I pray for healing, and I hope and ask that you please forgive me. I also apologize to any and all of David’s family and friends for your pain and sorrow, as well as any law enforcement, volunteers and court related people who’ve had to personally work or be affected by all this. I’m truly sorry and pray for all of you will be able to get through this as well.”
Barrett apologized to his own family, to the community of Alaska, and to anyone who has PTSD as a result of the murder.
“Please forgive me. I regret what has happened and realize it was completely wrong. This tragedy should never have happened,” he said.
He went on to cite a Bible verse and said he would be open to communicating with the Grunwald family if they wanted to talk to him.
“I’ll keep you in my prayer,” said Barrett.
‘No value for human life’
Heath accepted the plea deal. He called 2016, “a summer of insanity,” remarking on all of the violent crime that year, including another fatal shooting in which Barrett was involved.
“The kidnapping portion of this event was one of the saddest testimonies I’ve ever heard described to the court,” he said. “A young man, totally innocent, had done nothing, is kidnapped and killed without any motive. Completely senseless. It makes no sense to anybody that has a moral compass. And it really does say that during that timeframe, this young man had no value for human life.”
The sentence imposed is 65 years with 20 suspended, leaving 45 years of active time.
Sentencing hearings for Barrett’s three co-defendants have been delayed due to the pandemic
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