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Montana man faces cold case trial in Alaska

Casey Grove
Sandra Perry was shot and killed by Robert Kowalski in 1996 in Yakutat. The shooting was ruled as an accident at the time, but the case was reopened in January 2009.
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Padgett

Twelve years and more than 1,200 miles apart, Robert Kowalski shot and killed two women. One died on vacation in Alaska, the other in her Montana home.

Both were romantically involved with Kowalski. Both were shot in the face. And both deaths, Kowalski claimed, were accidents.

Kowalski pleaded guilty in 2009 to the Montana killing.On Friday, 15 years after he shot his girlfriend in Southeast Alaska, a Juneau grand jury indicted Kowalski for her murder too, according to Alaska State Troopers.

The Alaska shooting came in the summer of 1996.

Troopers said Kowalski, 35 at the time, was vacationing in Yakutat with Sandra Perry, a 38-year-old mother of three. The pair lived together in Washington state and were staying in a room at the Glacier Bear Lodge, troopers said.

Kowalski told investigators he grabbed a shotgun when the couple heard what they thought was a bear outside their room, troopers said. Kowalski said he tripped on the bed, fell on top of Perry, and the gun went off as he stood up, troopers said.

Although a man staying in the next room said he heard the pair arguing before the gunshot, no charges were filed, court records show.

Investigators took another look at the cold case after Kowalski was charged with causing another woman's death in 2008.

According to an account in the Daily Inter Lake News in Northwest Montana, prosecutors told a judge that Kowalski and girlfriend Lorraine Kay Morin, 45, were in the midst of an alcohol-fueled fight when Morin tried to throw Kowalski out of her house. A small-caliber handgun changed hands at least once and, as the fight continued, Kowalski shot Morin from about a foot away, hitting her in the face, the newspaper reported. Morin was a mother of six.

Kowalski told a roommate about the shooting, the roommate told police, and Kowalski holed up in his home, according to the Daily Inter Lake. He surrendered after a 31-hour standoff that involved three SWAT teams and irritant gas launched into his home, the paper said.

Once again, Kowalski claimed the shooting was an accident, but this time he was charged, pleaded guilty and was convicted for the killing, troopers said. The Montana Department of Corrections website shows he is serving a 40-year sentence.

The similarities between the two shootings prompted investigators in Alaska to reopen the Yakutat cold case, troopers said.

Still, it's unclear what new information detectives discovered, if any. An investigator familiar with the case declined to comment on specific details about why Kowalski is now facing murder charges in Alaska.

Revisiting a suspicious death is "pretty much standard procedure for the Cold Case Unit" when a person of interest in the case turns up as a suspect in another, similar case, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen wrote in an email.

"Another pair of fresh eyes sometimes can turn up new leads or more information," Ipsen said. "Plus, they aren't distracted by newer cases and can invest the time and focus specifically on these older, unresolved cases."

Kowalski, now 50, remains behind bars in Montana pending extradition to Alaska, troopers said. A Juneau judge set his bail at $1 million, troopers said.

Sandra Perry's son, Jeremy Padgett, said Saturday he was "excited" to hear Kowalski had been indicted for his mother's death but declined to comment further.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

Woman's death in Montana has eerie echoes of Yakutat killing (1/22/09)
By CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News