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Press Release

Palmer Man Indicted on Federal Murder Charges and String of Armed Home Invasion Robberies

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Alaska
Indictment alleges that defendant attempted to steal drugs from houses in 2015 and 2016; Two victims killed and a third shot during home invasion on June 5, 2016

Anchorage, Alaska – Acting U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder announced today that a federal grand jury in Anchorage indicted John Pearl Smith II, age 30, of Palmer, for the murders of Wasilla residents Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi on June 5, 2016. If convicted, Smith faces either life in prison or the federal death penalty.


The indictment alleges that in September 2015, May 11, 2016, and June 5, 2016, Smith attempted to rob people he believed were involved in trafficking drugs. On each occasion, the indictment alleges that he brandished firearms during the robbery. On the last occasion, it alleges he shot and killed Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi during the robbery, as well as shot a third individual, identified in the indictment as “R.B.” The indictment alleges “special findings” that could make Smith eligible for the federal death penalty, including that he committed the murders after substantial planning and premeditation, and after having been previously convicted of a gunpoint robbery in Alaska in 2006. Pursuant to Department of Justice policy, the Attorney General of the United States will decide whether Smith will face the death penalty if convicted.


Acting U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder said: “The connection between drugs and violence is inextricable, and we have been directed by the Attorney General to take aim at violent crime in our communities by working with our state and local partners. This investigation is a great example of that partnership, as the Alaska State Troopers, who led the investigation, brought in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration to assist the Alaska Bureau of Investigation and the Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit MatSu Office. The result was that John Pearl Smith II was initially indicted and held on federal charges of being a felon in possession of firearms shortly after the murders, which allowed state and federal authorities to finish the investigation, which uncovered additional robberies. We worked with the Palmer District Attorney’s Office, and we jointly decided to pursue federal charges for the murders.”


This indictment comes one month after another major violent crime indictment in which Matthew James Scharber, age 35, Michael Charles Elder, age 24, and Corey Stanley Sylva, age 26, were charged with federal crimes including kidnapping, carjacking, and using firearms to shoot two victims who were left for dead up at Hatcher’s Pass. In that case, the Alaska State Troopers teamed with the FBI Safe Streets Task Force to bring federal charges after coordination with the Anchorage District Attorney’s Office. The men face life in federal prison, including lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.


Other cases charged this month and last focus on Kodiak, where a joint Kodiak Police Department, Coast Guard Investigative Service, Alaska State Troopers, and the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force investigation led to the charging of three Kodiak men for drug trafficking, firearm crimes, or both: Nathan Gambrell, age 43 (felon in possession of firearms), Jose Alberto “Bird” Rodriguez, age 29 (methamphetamine possession with intent to distribute), and Wahyo “Kodiak Mike” Sanjoyo, age 35, (methamphetamine trafficking and possessing firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking). As part of this investigation, authorities seized 36 illegal firearms and large quantities of narcotics.


Mr. Schroder added: “These cases are consistent with Attorney General Sessions March 8, 2017, directive to reduce violent crime by partnering with federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify serious offenders, and if appropriate, use federal statutes to prosecute. We are committed to a unified approach to combat the violent crime and drug issues in Alaska.”


Indictments are only charges and are not evidence of guilt. The defendants are presumed innocent and are entitled to a fair trial at which the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Updated March 23, 2017

Violent Crime