Man pleads guilty to murder

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Robert Kowalski is pictured in Flathead District Court in 2009, when he was sentenced to 40 years for mitigated deliberate homicide.

A Creston man who in March involved SWAT teams from three jurisdictions in a 31-hour armed standoff outside his Montana 35 residence has been convicted of killing his Columbia Falls-area girlfriend.

Robert Dean Kowalski, 47, pleaded guilty by way of Alford to mitigated deliberate homicide during a hearing Monday in Flathead County District Court.

An Alford plea allows a defendant to assert his innocence while admitting that sufficient evidence may exist to convince a jury of his guilt. Alford pleas are often used to take advantage of a plea bargain even though a defendant does not admit the alleged act.

In exchange for his plea to mitigated deliberate homicide, the Flathead County Attorney's Office dismissed deliberate homicide charges and will recommend Kowalski receive 50 years in Montana State Prison with 10 years suspended and no restrictions on his parole.

Should District Court Judge Katherine R. Curtis impose a stiffer penalty at his March 12 sentencing hearing, Kowalski will be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea and the case will proceed to trial.

Before Curtis accepted Kowalski's plea, County Attorney Ed Corrigan briefly described what prosecutors believe occurred between Kowalski and 45-year-old Lorraine Kay Morin early on the morning of March 16, 2008.

The couple, both of whom had been drinking, became involved in a domestic disturbance over a minor slight and Morin attempted to throw Kowalski out of the house, Corrigan said.

The small-caliber handgun used in the shooting changed hands at least once before Morin - a mother of six children ages 9 to 28 - gave it back to Kowalski.

The altercation continued to escalate until Kowalski shot Morin once in the face from a distance of about 12 inches.

Morin's body was found in a living room chair at her home a few hundred feet north of Elk Park Road on Montana 206 later on March 16. Kowalski had told a roommate about the shooting, and the roommate notified authorities.

The gun used to kill Morin was recovered from Kowalski's home at the conclusion of the standoff, Corrigan said.

For Monday's plea hearing only, prosecutors were willing to accept Kowalski's version of events and that he was under undue emotional distress when the shooting occurred, Corrigan said.

Kowalski did not testify Monday to the shooting or the events surrounding it, but said he was innocent of intending to kill Morin.

Kowalski's attorneys, Vicki L Frazier and Gregory N. Hood, had no comment following the hearing.

After the shooting, Kowalski fled to his home on Montana 35 where he was arrested March 17 following an armed standoff with law officers that was resolved peacefully only after irritant gas was launched into his house.

At one point, police heard a single shot ring out from the rear of the residence. Investigators are unsure whether the shot was aimed at law enforcement.

Kowalski, who reportedly suffers from bipolar disorder and is on medication for anxiety and depression, told Curtis he was "feeling relaxed" when questioned about his ability to understand the proceedings.

Kowalski previously was cited and fined in 2003 for assaulting a family member and violating a restraining order at his Bigfork home. In 2005 Kowalski was accused of threatening, kicking and pushing his ex-wife and threatening a stepson, also in the Bigfork area. He was cited for drunken driving on the same date.

Reporter Nicholas Ledden can be reached at 758-4441 or by e-mail at nledden@dailyinterlake.com

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