Similarities between 1996, 2008 shootings prompt review of earlier case against killer
A Creston man convicted earlier this month of murdering a Columbia Falls-area woman may face charges in connection with a similar shooting that occurred 12 years ago in Alaska.
Alaska prosecutors said Wednesday they are reviewing their case against 47-year-old Robert Dean Kowalski, who in 1996 shot his 38-year-old girlfriend in the mouth while vacationing at a Yakatat, Alaska, fishing and hunting lodge.
Kowalski, who told investigators the shooting was an accident, never was charged in the killing.
The prosecutor originally assigned to the case apparently believed there was insufficient evidence to disprove Kowalski's claim that the shotgun he was holding accidentally discharged, said Alaska Assistant Attorney General and cold case prosecutor Pat Gullufsen.
"However, much of that was based upon Mr. Kowalski's explanation of events, and there were no other witnesses," Gullufsen said.
But the Montana case, and the similarities between it and the Alaska case, prompted authorities to revisit the Yakatat shooting, Gullufsen said.
In both instances, Kowalski shot girlfriends in the mouth from close range and stayed with the bodies several hours before calling authorities, investigators allege.
As was the shooting in Flathead County, the Alaska shooting was preceded by a domestic disturbance. People in the room next to Kowalski's at the Yakatat lodge reported hearing an argument that ended in a gunshot, said Flathead County sheriff's Detective Pat Walsh.
Kowalski told Alaska investigators conflicting stories, including that the shotgun went off accidentally while he was walking toward a window after spotting a bear outside the room, and then that the shotgun went off accidentally when his girlfriend startled him, Walsh said.
"Once again, that story is inconsistent with what the neighbors heard," Walsh said.
During Kowalski's Jan. 12 change-of-plea hearing in Flathead County District Court, 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 and Morin attempted to throw Kowalski out of the house, Corrigan said.
The altercation continued to escalate until Kowalski shot Morin - a mother of six children ages 9 to 28 - once in the face from a distance of about 12 inches.
Morin's body was found hours later in a chair at her home a few hundred feet north of Elk Park Road on Montana 206. Kowalski had told a roommate about the shooting, and the roommate notified authorities.
The small-caliber handgun gun used to kill Morin was recovered from Kowalski's home on Montana 35 at the conclusion of a 31-hour standoff that involved SWAT teams from three jurisdictions.
Kowalski told investigators the accidentally gun went off as he was falling backward into a chair, Corrigan said.
But Flathead County prosecutors said they were willing to accept Kowalski's version of the shooting only for the purpose of accepting his Alford plea to mitigated deliberate homicide.
An Alford plea allows a defendant to assert his innocence while admitting that sufficient evidence may exist to convince a jury of his guilt. It has the same practical outcome as a guilty plea.
"He was investigated for a similar shooting in Alaska," said Corrigan, who is expected to address the Yakatat killing during Kowalski's sentencing hearing March 12.
In exchange for Kowalski's plea, 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.
"If they set him free, they're sealing the fate of another woman," said Beth Stanslow, one of Kowalski's ex-wives. She said the court ought to consider Kowalski's record of violence and not give him the chance to harm anyone else.
Stanslow said her marriage to Kowalski was marked by repeated incidents of violence and domestic abuse.
Kowalski, who reportedly suffers from bipolar disorder and is on medication for anxiety and depression, has appeared several times in Flathead County courts on domestic-violence allegations. He was ticketed 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.
Should District Court Judge Katherine R. Curtis impose a stiffer penalty than that outlined in the plea agreement, Kowalski will be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea and the case will proceed to trial.
Reporter Nicholas Ledden can be reached at 758-4441 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org