Palmer man gets life sentence for 2016 double murder, lighting garage on fire

John Pearl Smith II sentenced for 2016 double murder, lighting home on fire
Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 3:18 PM AKST|Updated: Feb. 17, 2023 at 5:12 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A man convicted of murdering two people, attempting to kill a third, and setting a Wasilla-area garage on fire in 2016 was handed a double life sentence Thursday by a federal district court judge.

The judge gave consecutive life sentences to 36-year-old John Pearl Smith II, who was convicted in August 2022 on 10 felony counts stemming from a series of robberies that ultimately culminated in the shooting deaths of Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi.

Authorities say Smith broke into multiple residences in the Wasilla area from September 2015 to June 2016, doing so with the belief that the owners of the homes were involved in drug trafficking. Smith reportedly terrorized and threatened those he encountered, then stole valuable items before leaving.

In May 2016, authorities say Smith identified the house of a drug dealer and broke in, tying up the owners with duct tape before making off with heroin, cash and a .22 caliber revolver.

The next month, Smith broke into a detached garage that was part of a residence near Cloudy Lake in Wasilla. After kicking the door in, authorities say Smith fired a warning shot, prompting Gross to throw a bottle his direction.

Smith then shot Gross four times, killing him, before tying up Denardi and a second man. He later shot Denardi, killing her, and shot at the other man who was attempting to escape. The other man was shot in the head and chest but escaped by paddling across the lake in a kayak to another home.

Authorities say Smith burned the garage, and with it, the bodies of Gross and Denardi.

Smith was eventually tracked down and arrested on June 28, 2016. Investigators later found the gun Smith hid in a marshy area off Johnson Road in Wasilla, confirming it was the weapon he used with a hand-drawn map Smith drew up while in jail.

“John Pearl Smith’s senseless and selfish choices caused untold harm to his victims and resulted in the tragic loss of two innocent lives,” U.S. Attorney S. Lane Tucker for the District of Alaska said in a press release. “This sentence ensures that Smith will never have the opportunity to harm another innocent person again.”

Smith was convicted of the following:

  • Two counts of using a firearm to commit murder in relation to drug trafficking
  • Two counts of interference with commerce by robbery
  • One count of attempted interference with commerce by robbery
  • Three counts of attempted possession of controlled substance with intent to distribute
  • Two counts of brandishing a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking crime

Jonathan McPherson, a Seattle field division special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, called Smith’s acts “heinous in nature.”

“While this sentence will not bring the victims back to their families it is warranted for his vicious actions and will remove a clear danger from the community,” McPherson said.