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Woman's death in Montana has eerie echoes of Yakutat killing

Julia O'Malley
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Padgett

To this day some guests refuse to sleep in Room 10 at the Glacier Bear Lodge in Yakutat.

Sandra Perry, a vacationing mother of three from Washington, was shot to death there in the summer of 1996. She was 38. Her boyfriend, Robert Kowalski, said he grabbed a gun to shoot a bear outside their window but it accidentally went off, hitting her in the face. There were no witnesses.

Troopers investigated and in the end they called it an accident. But around town people still talk about it, said Sharesse Edwards, one of the lodge owners. Some say Perry's spirit stayed in the room, unable to rest until the world knew the truth.

And now, 12 years after her death, Alaska prosecutors are looking into the case again. That's because Kowalski has been charged with murder in Montana, and the circumstances are strikingly similar.

MONTANA KILLING

It was March of 2008 when Kowalski and his girlfriend, Lorraine Kay Morin, got into an argument after both had been drinking in the Northwest Montana town of Columbia Falls, according to accounts in the local paper, the Daily Inter Lake.

Morin tried to throw Kowalski out and their fight escalated. A small-caliber handgun changed hands several times. Kowalski got hold of it and shot Morin in the face from a distance of about 12 inches, the Daily Inter Lake reported.

She was found dead in a chair hours later.

A mother of six children, ages 9 to 28, Morin was 45 years old.

Kowalski left the scene and told his roommate about the shooting. The roommate told police. When they tried to arrest him, he barricaded himself in his house in a 31-hour standoff that involved three SWAT teams.

Finally in custody, Kowalski said the gun went off accidentally as he was falling backward in a chair.

Early this month, he pleaded no contest to a murder charge and is scheduled to be sentenced in March, though Flathead County Sheriff Detective Pat Walsh on Thursday said there's been some indication he may change his mind. That means the case could go to trial.

SIMILAR CIRCUMSTANCES

One of Kowalski's ex-wives told Walsh about the Yakutat case. He contacted Alaska State Troopers and found the report. The similarities shocked him. Both shootings took place after a domestic dispute, he said. Each time, Kowalski shot women at close range in the face. He didn't go to police. His stories were inconsistent and didn't match evidence.

The Alaska investigation was detailed, Walsh said. Clearly investigators thought they had enough evidence to take the case to trial.

"There were neighbors that heard the yelling and screaming and it ended in a gunshot," he said.

But for some reason, the district attorney at the time didn't feel the case was strong enough, a decision Walsh hopes will be reversed.

"I read the whole case," he said. "That would have been charged here in a heartbeat."

It's hard to say whether the Alaska report will come up if the Montana case goes to trial, but it will certainly be considered by a judge if Kowalski is sentenced, he said.

Pat Gullufsen, an Alaska assistant attorney general and cold case prosecutor, said the 2008 case shed new light on the old report. He called the 1996 investigation "lengthy and thorough."

"We are again reviewing the Alaska case," he said.

He couldn't go into details about the investigation and wouldn't say whether charges would be filed.

SUSPICIONS

For Perry's sister, Kathy Barnett, suspicions crept in at her sister's funeral. Kowalski came and cried the whole time, but something didn't feel right.

Kowalski had been a welcome addition to her sister's life a little less than a year before Perry's death. Perry was a single mother living outside of Seattle, working two jobs to support her three kids while taking classes to become an accountant. Kowalski was a charming, generous divorce. He paid attention to the children. He bought Perry a truck.

"We loved him," she said. "He was a very, very nice guy. He made her happy, appreciated her as a person, treated the kids really good."

But after her sister's death, Barnett tracked down Kowalski's ex-wife. It turned out she wasn't an ex at all, Barnett said. The woman told her that she'd been expecting to move to the Seattle area to join Kowalski, who had come to the city for a new job. She didn't know about Perry or what had happened in Alaska.

Barnett talked to a lawyer who told her there wasn't enough evidence for criminal charges. She filed a wrongful-death suit against Kowalski in civil court. His insurance eventually paid $300,000, $100,000 for each of Perry's children, Barnett said. The younger children, Emily and Bradley, went to live with their father. She took in Perry's oldest son, Jeremy, who was a teenager at the time.

A DAY IN 1996

Jeremy Padgett was 15 the summer day in 1996 he went with a friend to get his mother at the airport. He waited for her to step off the flight from Alaska, watched all the other passengers get off the plane, but she never showed.

"I just felt a sense that something was wrong," he said.

A few hours later, a police officer arrived at his house and told him his mother was dead. Right then, he suspected Kowalski. And later at the funeral, he confronted him, accused him of killing his mother.

"He said it was accidental," Padgett said.

People in his family didn't know what to believe, he said. Some had suspicions but there wasn't anything they could do. After the funeral, their relationship with Kowalski dissolved.

Padgett sank into a rough phase, drinking and getting into trouble. He moved in with his aunt and eventually settled down. His mother's death was always there, the nagging questions, the nagging loss. He is 29 years old now, and works as a foreman for a concrete company.

"I have a wife with two kids and my kids will never see their grandma," he said.

Just recently his son came to find him with a pair of toy binoculars.

"He says, 'I'm trying to see grandma Sandy in heaven,' " Padgett said.

He hadn't heard the news of the Montana charges until Thursday. Word that investigators are looking into his mother's case again made him happy and frustrated all at once.

"If this had been resolved and this had been taken care of in Alaska, this wouldn't have happened," he said.

"How do they not put people like this away?"


By JULIA O'MALLEY
jomalley@adn.com
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