Murder suspect pleads innocent

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Robert Dean Kowalski, 46, bows his head in Flathead County District Court on Thursday morning after pleading innocent to deliberate homicide in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Lorraine Kay Morin. Garrett Cheen/Daily Inter Lake

The man accused of killing a Columbia Falls-area woman before involving SWAT teams from three jurisdictions in a 31-hour armed standoff pleaded innocent Thursday in Flathead County District Court to deliberate homicide.

Robert Dean Kowalski, 46, is being held in the Flathead County Detention Center in lieu of $500,000 bail.

If convicted, Kowalski faces as long as 110 years or life in prison. His trial is scheduled for the July jury term.

He is accused of shooting his girlfriend, 45-year-old Lorraine Kay Morin - a mother of six children ages 9 to 28 - sometime early March 16. Her body was found later that day in a living room chair at her home a few hundred feet north of Elk Park Road on Montana 206.

She had been shot once in the mouth, possibly with a small-caliber handgun.

After the shooting, Kowalski apparently fled to his home on Montana 35.

He was arrested there the next evening after a long standoff with law officers was resolved peacefully after irritant gas was launched into his house.

Law officers learned of the shooting after Kowalski's roommate told the Sheriff's Office that Kowalski had called the roommate (who was not home at the time) and said he had killed his girlfriend and was feeling suicidal.

Investigators tracked Kowalski's Ford Ranger pickup to his house on Montana 35, just east of Fairmont Road.

The Flathead County SWAT team, which later would be joined by teams from Kalispell and Missoula, began surrounding the house at about 2 p.m. March 16.

For five hours, no one knew whether Kowalski were alive, dead or even in the house. Several phone calls from negotiators went unanswered.

Officers parked the Kalispell Police Department's Ballistic Engineered Armored Response vehicle within 20 feet of Kowalski's home and tried to reach him on a phone dropped on his front door. Kowalski did not respond.

That evening, authorities closed Montana 35 between Fairmont and Montford roads. The highway would stay shut down for almost 24 hours.

Just before midnight, police heard a single shot ring out from the rear of the residence. Investigators are unsure whether the shot was aimed at law enforcement.

Negotiators used the Missoula SWAT team's wheeled robot, which has a mechanical arm, and a bullhorn to communicate with Kowalski, who continued to talk with officers until about 3 a.m.

On March 17, negotiators again tried to convince Kowalski to come out, striking a deal to trade cigarettes for his gun. Kowalski received his cigarette, but tossed out a pellet pistol.

That evening, as the situation deteriorated, authorities launched a barrage of about 15 ferret rounds - 40 mm canisters that discharge non-flammable irritant gas - into the house.

To stop the gas, Kowalski, put his gun to his head. Negotiators eventually convinced Kowalski to put the gun to his side, and then on the ground.

He finally surrendered at 6:08 p.m., slowly exiting the residence with his arms raised.

Authorities said they would have resumed negotiations had the gas failed to drive Kowalski out of the house.

Kowalski, who reportedly suffers from bipolar disorder, was cited and fined in 2003 for assaulting a family member and violating a restraining order at his Bigfork home and in 2005 for 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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