Palmer man convicted of murder in drug robberies won’t be on death row after all

Handgun prosecutors say John Pearl Smith II was buried after killing Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi in 2016. (US Attorney’s Office)

A Palmer man was convicted of murder after killing two people in 2016 during a series of robberies in the Wasilla area that targeted locations he believed were used for drug trafficking.

But John Pearl Smith II, 36, will not face the death penalty upon sentencing, as federal prosecutors originally requested.

A jury convicted Smith of murder, robbery and firearm on Tuesday after an 11-day trial.

Prosecutors say the robberies began in 2015, when Smith broke down the door of a house on Knik-Goose Bay Road, fired a warning shot and stole drugs, jewelry and firearms. In 2016, they say he stole heroin and cash in another home invasion in Wasilla.

Prosecutors say Smith shot and killed Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi in a garage in another 2016 robbery attempt in Wasilla, after which he burned the bodies and the garage.

Smith was arrested over three weeks later.

While he was in jail, prosecutors announced in 2018 that they would seek the death penalty, under a directive from then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Alaska does not have the death penalty, but Smith’s case was charged under the federal system, which includes capital punishment.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alaska, this was only the third time in the past 30 years that a formal intent to pursue the death penalty has been filed in an Alaskan case.

Then, in 2021, current Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that federal executions would be halted pending a review.

Smith’s sentencing is scheduled for December. He faces at least 34 years behind bars, up to life imprisonment.

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