Alaska man faces federal murder charges, death penalty

Acting U.S. Attorney for Alaska Bryan Schroder announces federal murder charges against John Pearl Smith II Thursday in Anchorage. An indictment says Smith killed Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi in June 2016 and wounded a third person while attempting to rob them near Wasilla. Schroder said federal prosecutors may seek the death penalty in the case. (Dan Joling | The Associated Press)

ANCHORAGE — An Alaska man suspected of killing two people during a robbery has been indicted on murder charges by a federal grand jury and prosecutors say they may seek the death penalty.

 

John Pearl Smith II, 30, is charged with attempting to rob people he believed were trafficking in drugs, said Bryan Schroder, acting U.S. attorney for Alaska, at a press conference Thursday.

Smith in home invasion cases tried robbing people at gunpoint in September 2015 and May 2016, Schroder said. Both were in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley north of Anchorage.

During his third attempt, on June 5, Smith shot and killed Ben Gross, 43, and Crystal Denardi, 30, of Wasilla, Schroder said. Smith also wounded a man identified in the indictment by his initials, “R.B.”, Schroder said.

The bodies of Gross and Denardi were found in a burned Wasilla home. Autopsy results showed they had been shot before the fire started.

Steve Wells, an Anchorage attorney appointed as one of Smith’s public defenders, said he had anticipated the indictment.

“The decision as to whether to seek death or not has not been made, and it certainly is a possibility and at this point in time, we are reviewing all of our options to defend Mr. Smith to the best of our ability,” he said. Smith, he said, is innocent until proven guilty.

“We look forward to the court process and working things out as we have a legal process,” Wells said.

Smith has been in jail since shortly after the fatal shootings on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms. He faces 17 counts including interference with commerce by robbery, attempted drug possession, using a gun to commit murder and using a gun during drug trafficking.

Smith previously was convicted in state court of vehicle theft, robbery and burglary.

A decision to seek the death penalty is not made locally.

Under Justice Department protocol, Schroder said, a committee in Washington, D.C., reviews the case, hears from the defense and prepares a recommendation for the attorney general, who makes the final decision.

Right now the death penalty is just an option, Schroder said, but the indictment includes special findings could make Smith eligible. Smith committed murders after substantial planning and premeditation after being previously convicted of a robbery at gunpoint in 2006, according to the indictment.

The state of Alaska does not have a death penalty and has never executed a person.

The last two people executed in Alaska died during territorial days.

Austin Nelson, 24, and Eugene LaMoore, 42, both African-Americans, were convicted of the 1946 murder of a Juneau shopkeeper, said Anchorage attorney Averil Lerman, who is writing a book on the topic. Nelson was executed in 1948 and LaMoore in 1950.

Lerman closely examined evidence and the defenses provided for the men. Their convictions were “more than questionable,” she said.

The Territorial Legislature abolished capital punishment in 1957, two years before Alaska became a state. Attempts to reinstate capital punishment have failed.

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