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Teen Allegedly Kidnapped and Murdered by Peers

Photograph by Facebook

I first saw David Grunwald’s image in my Facebook newsfeed a few weeks ago. A friend, whose daughter went to school with David, had shared the missing person flyer for the 16 year old who had disappeared from Palmer, Alaska—the state I call home.

David went to school at Mat-Su Career and Technical High School. It's recognized in national rankings as one of the best schools in the country. Kids have to apply and entrance can be competitive. The school prides itself on preparing students for the future, offering programs to give them a leg up upon graduation and encouraging them to choose a focus in their studies, with everything from business to tourism, health and dentistry being offered.

The kids who go there are usually driven. They have goals and hopes for the future, and they aren’t afraid of working hard to accomplish those dreams.

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As someone who has watched this story play out in my own backyard, I can attest to the shockwaves (Grunwald's murder) has sent through our community.

On the night of Sunday, Nov. 13, David dropped his girlfriend off at her house at 6:30 p.m. He called his mom, Edith Grunwald, to say he was going to stop by a friend’s house on the way home, and together they agreed that because of the icy road conditions, he could be a little late for his 9 p.m. curfew. But he promised to be home no later than 9:20 p.m.

When David, a generally responsible and punctual kid, still wasn’t home by 9:40 p.m., Edith began to worry. She and her husband decided to drive the road that would have brought David home, just in case he’d spun out on the ice. When they found no trace of him, they called the police.

David Grunwald was reported missing at 11:45 p.m. on Nov. 13. The next day, his 1995 Ford Bronco was found torched about a 20-minute drive from his family home. No remains were found inside the vehicle and there was no trace of David.

As the weeks went on, the search continued. Brenda Paradise, a private investigator for the non-profit group Guardian Search and Investigations joined those efforts on Friday, Nov. 18.

People in Alaska are pretty community driven, and David comes from a big military family. Over 300 volunteers, many of them active-duty military personnel and National Guard members, came together to search in freezing temperatures for the missing teenager.

That search came to an end on Friday, Dec. 2 when remains believed to be David’s were found at 2 p.m., about 30 minutes in the opposite direction of the family home from where his truck had been found.

It was a sad end to a missing person’s case many had hoped for a better resolution to. But the most shocking news was still to come.

The very next day, a 16-year-old former classmate of David’s—the friend he supposedly went to see that night—was charged as an adult with the kidnapping and murder of David Grunwald. And according to court documents, he wasn’t the only one involved.

Right now, details are still emerging. But according to charging documents, other teenagers may have played a role the night David was murdered, and several more knew what had happened.

I can't even comprehend how these kids went about their days. They attended classes and celebrated Thanksgiving with their families, all the while knowing that David’s parents were still desperate for answers.

As someone who has watched this story play out in my own backyard, I can attest to the shockwaves it has sent through our community. As a mother, my heart has been with the Grunwalds. No parent should ever have to experience such a loss. And as details have come out depicting David’s final hours, as he was marched out into the woods by people he thought were his friends, pistol-whipped and begging for his life, I’ve questioned how any parent could possibly cope with knowing that was the end their child faced.

There are all these dangers that we as parents are forever on the lookout for: predators and risky behavior. But rarely is it our children’s peers that we think to fear. And at 16 years old, most parents are beginning to loosen the leash on their teens, to give them a little more leeway in what they do with their free time.

This is especially true for kids like David, good kids who are responsible and polite and produce good grades. Kids like David are the kids most parents don’t spend as much time worrying about.

In their darkest moments, no parent ever could have foreseen this end for this child.

But I’ve also found myself thinking about the parents of the children involved. As the days go on, most in Alaska are anticipating additional arrests. Many of us have found ourselves asking how so many teenagers could have potentially been involved in, or known about, what happened and not spoken up.

Where were their parents in all of this?

These people need to be scared. They need to start looking at their kids harder. They need to take accountability for what their kids are doing.

I’m not the only one asking that question. Paradise, the private investigator who joined the search for David early on, took some time to talk to me and share her take.

Paradise has worked on more than 400 missing person’s cases over the years. Most are runaways, but David’s case was different. Early on, details were emerging behind the scenes that hinted at what the eventual outcome would be. As such, law enforcement was actively involved and Paradise’s role was a little different from what it usually is in these searches. She wasn’t involved in suspect interviews and deferred all tips to local law enforcement officers, instead working as a resource to the family to continue spreading the word and helping to organize volunteers in the search for David.

But since the news broke, Paradise has received several calls from local residents who know her and consider her a resource. They’re scared. Because additional charges have not yet been brought, many of the kids allegedly involved are still attending the local high school. Parents are afraid and Paradise even spoke to one teacher who had called in sick to work over her own fears. One parent told Paradise she wished the media wasn’t sharing as many of the gory details of David’s final hours, mostly because those details have frightened her son. But Paradise told me she’s in favor of that information being out there.

I can tell you that the kids involved in this have been pointing fingers, bragging and dropping hints on their social media accounts for weeks. They’re still doing it.

“This town needs to wake up,” she said. “These people need to be scared. They need to start looking at their kids harder. They need to take accountability for what their kids are doing. Watch their snapchats. Watch their Facebook accounts. Watch their Instagrams and their SoundClouds and their Kik accounts. Take their phones away at night and monitor what they are saying and who they are saying it to. I’ve spent a lot of time digging through what the kids involved in this have been doing online. I can tell you which kids are having sex with who. I can tell you which of these kids are having what kind of sex. I can tell you which of these kids are doing drugs. And I can tell you that the kids involved in this have been pointing fingers, bragging and dropping hints on their social media accounts for weeks. They’re still doing it. And if these parents had been watching what their kids were doing and saying, and what their friends were doing and saying … this might not have happened at all.”

I spent some time looking through the various Facebook accounts myself, and I have to say, I agree with Paradise. The things I saw posted publicly baffled me. Where were their parents? Why didn’t they step in sooner?

I’m not one to typically jump to blaming the parents when situations like this occur. By 16, most teenagers are operating of their own full will. But … the number of kids who potentially knew what happened here and didn’t come forward is hard for me to wrap my head around.

As a parent, I can’t imagine finding out my child was involved in something like this. I can’t imagine learning that she, either because of fear or an innate need to fit in, would remain silent.

I can’t imagine being more horrified or disappointed.

But I also can’t imagine seeing the things I’ve seen on the Facebook accounts of the kids allegedly involved and not stepping in sooner.

“It’s time to take accountability for what is going on with our kids,” Paradise told me. “If you’re not raising your kids, someone else is going to. And you don’t want it to be some other punk kid who is giving your child more attention than you, and who might wind up bringing them down a dark path. It’s time to parent up. Talk to your kids. They need to understand not only how to protect themselves, but when to reach out to law enforcement. David had an amazing family. But there is a lesson to this, and I don’t want David’s death to go in vain. These kids are still talking. They are still all over social media. Where are their parents in this? In any of this?”

Right now, David’s family is still seeking justice. The hashtag #JusticeForGrunwald has been created and local law enforcement officials are still asking people to come forward with tips and information. Paradise told me she’s never seen a law enforcement team work as hard, or as efficiently, as those involved in this case have. “They’ve really done amazing work for David and his family,” she said.

But the search for answers isn’t over. And more arrests will likely be made in the days to come.

So what does #JusticeForGrunwald look like?

For Paradise, she hopes to see not only convictions made, but also a change in our community mentality.

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“Know your kids. Know what they are doing and who they are spending their time with. David was a great kid with great parents who simply got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He loved his girlfriend, he had an interest in planes, and his life was taken by kids he had known for years, kids who were doing and saying things on social media that their parents should have seen as red flags a long time ago.”

The thing is, what's happened here, while shocking, isn't exactly unique to Alaska. An eerily similar case came out in Massachusetts over the weekend, with another 16-year-old boy who went missing in November. His body was found, decapitated on Dec. 1. And a 15-year-old classmate of his was charged with the murder just two days later.

The fact is, parents everywhere need to be paying attention.

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