In the wake of the horrific and almost unbelievable execution-style murder of a 16-year-old Palmer, Alaska, youth – allegedly at the hands of a similarly aged teen – a 49th-state educator has suggested it might be time prosecutors be given the authority to pursue charges against the parents of juvenile criminals.
Adam Mokelke, the principal at Anchorage e STrEaM Academy, floated the idea on his Facebook page Monday night, and it quickly gained traction. In a Tuesday interview, Mokelke said he doubts such a law would be used much, but there might be cases where it is applicable.
Mokelke said his passion for such legislation was stirred by the tragic death of 16-year-old David Grunwald.
“My daughter, Victoria, he was her boyfriend,” Mokelke said. “They were high school sweethearts. He came and knocked on my door one day and asked, ‘Can I take your daughter out?’
“Who does that anymore?
“He never let her open a door. He was always so good. They were best friends.”
Grunwald was last seen on Nov. 13, shortly after dropping Victoria at home in the tiny community of Butte in the broad, windswept Knik River Valley between Anchorage and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s home in Wasilla.
A day later, Grunwald’s Ford Bronco was found miles away abandoned on a Bald Mountain Ridge trail. It had been burned. There was no sign of Grunwald.
A search was begun. It went on for days with no trace of the missing teenager.
Meanwhile, court records now reveal, Alaska State Troopers were busy tracking Grunwald’s movements after he left the Mokelke home.
Gang wannabe arrested
On Saturday, troopers announced they had found Grunwald’s body and arrested an acquaintance, 16-year-old Erick Almandinger of Palmer. It didn’t take the internet savvy long to find the Facebook page of Almandinger, where he could be found making apparent gang signs and posing with his posse. The photos have since been removed from his page.
But the chatter continues on the Facebook pages of Almandinger’s friends, Mokelke said.
“There are other kids involved in this,” he said. “They were bragging about their gang as of yesterday. Some were posting gang signs (and) laughing.”
Alaska might be far from the rest of America, but gangsta rap and the idea of living some sort of gangsta lifestyle has infiltrated even the most remote corners of the still wild state. It is not unusual to find some young person in a Bush village trying to dress and act like an urban gangster.
Too often parents – if they’re paying attention enough to notice – just ignore the behavior.
Parenting is a subject little talked about in Alaska. It is a problem, said Mokelke, who used to work at a school in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Mokelke said he became of aware of situations there he found hard to believe, including parents doing heroin with their children and prostituting their children in exchange for drugs.
He is troubled to now find young people on Facebook joking about the death of Grunwald. Where are the parents? he asked.
“How can you not know?”
Mokelke is a believer in parental responsibility. The best of parents do have kids who go bad, he conceded. It can happen to any parent no matter how hard they try to do the right thing. But a disproportion number of criminals come from bad families.
There is some data to back up this belief. In a study of more than a half million children in Sweden, researchers discovered that those who grew up in families connected to illegal drug use and violence “were seven times more likely to be convicted of violent crimes and twice as likely to be convicted of drug offenses,” The Economist reported.
The researchers, who reported their findings in the British Journal of Psychiatry two years ago, at first thought the behaviors were linked to poverty, but when they looked at families “which had started poor and got richer, the younger children—those born into relative affluence—were just as likely to misbehave when they were teenagers as their elder siblings had been. Family income was not, per se, the determining factor,” The Economist noted.
State court records indicate Almandinger grew up in a family with problems. Domestic violence protective orders were filed against his father, Rodney, several times in the 2000s by his mother, and Rodney in turn filed for a protective order against her.
No matter Erick Almandinger’s upbringing, the crime he is alleged to have committed is hard to imagine.
According to court records, after Grunwald dropped off his girlfriend, he drove to Erick’s home to join a group of teens drinking and smoking dope in a old camper trailer on the family property.
An unnamed teen at the party is alleged to have at some point asked Almandinger to bring a .40-caliber, semi-automatic handgun to the trailer. It was later used to pistol-whip Grunwald, according to troopers, though exactly why is unclear.
An affidavit filed by Trooper Sgt.Sergeant Tony Wegrzyn says Erick suggested he killed Grunwald because he smoked all of Erick’s “weed.” At least three teenagers are identified by their initials in the trooper document, but only Erick has been charged.
After a youth identified as D.J. beat Grunwald in the trailer, the affidavit says, he and Erick loaded the slightly built teenager into his own Bronco and headed for the nearby Chugach Mountains. Along the way, they drove past Mokelke’s house.
Somewhere along Knik River Road, records indicate, they pulled Grunwald out of the vehicle and walked him into the woods.
…”D.J. led, (and) escorted Grunwald into the woods away from the road” is how the MatSu Valley Frontiersman, the hometown newspaper of the teenagers reported what happened next. “Almandinger said he accompanied D.J. and acknowledged that Grunwald was pleading for his life as they walked.
“Wegrzyn’s affidavit states Almandinger told him when they got into the woods, D.J. shot Grunwald once with a 9 mm slug. When re-questioned, Almandinger changed his story stating that a third teen, identified as 16-year old “A.B.” had pulled the trigger.”
The group is then allegedly to have driven Grunwald’s Bronco to the Bald Mountain Ridge trail, set it afire and left the scene to return to Erick’s home where they used bleach to try to clean the blood out of the trailer and, apparently concluding that inadequate, burned the carpet.
Suspect IDed early
Even as a search for Grunwald was starting to spread out across the Matanuska Valley, troopers were looking for Erick Almandinger. They’d been told Grunwald had mentioned he might stop by the Almandinger residence on the way home.
Three days after Grunwald’s Bronco was found, they sat Erick down for an interview. Erick at first claimed not to have seen Grunwald in weeks, but did say Grunwald dropped a mutual friend at the Almandinger home on the night he disappeared.
Erick told troopers he himself had left home for a party in Anchorage that same evening. Troopers say that when they checked out that story, they found it untrue. Eventually they collected enough evidence that Erick was lying about his whereabouts to get a search warrant for electronic evidence.
They soon had Erick’s Samsung tablet in hand. The cellular location records in the tablet put him close to the burned out hulk of Grunwald’s Bronco at the time of the fire, according to troopers.
Armed with that information, the affidavits suggest it didn’t take long for Wegrzyn to get a confession out of Erick. A second interview started with Almandinger forced to admit he’d lied about his whereabouts on the night Grunwald went missing, according to troopers.
More search warrants were obtained. They led to the trailer with “an overwhelming odor of bleach,” according to troopers. Despite the bleach, investigators say they found traces of blood there.
They soon had the names of the other teens involved, too, they say, and on Friday one of them led authorities to Grunwald’s body.
Responsible parties should pay
Though Erick may have pulled the trigger, Mokelke said, the Grunwald case is bigger than that. He isn’t accusing of Erick’s parents of direct involvement, but he believes their lack of parental oversight might have contributed to Grunwald’s death.
“We should at least have the ability to make that investigation,” he said. “Why deny (prosecutors) the opportunity to bring charges against the family.”
A lot of people today want to blame video games or rap music for violent acts of the sort of which Erick Almandinger now stands accused, Mokelke said, but there is a more important reason.
“The deeper issue is how you’re raised,” he said. “There’s something deeply, deeply wrong here.
“This is hard for anyone to imagine. It’s incomprehensible.”
Only a few years ago, Erick Almandinger was entering cookies in the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, and now he stands accused of murder. If there are others who helped set the stage for the act, Mokelke said – and he emphasizes the word “if” – there should be a law allowing the state to bring them to trial too.
He has suggested calling such legislation “David’s Law” in honor of Grunwald.
Correction: This story was corrected on Dec. 8. The original story mistakenly placed the murder on Bald Mountain Ridge and misidentified Almandinger’s father. Grunwald was killed off Knik River Road. His Bronco was then moved and set afire. Almandinger’s fathers name is Rodney.