Jeremy Padgett was 16 years old when he last saw his mother, a “happy-go-lucky” 39-year-old woman from Washington who went on vacation in Alaska with her boyfriend in summer 1996 and never came home.
On the same day Padgett went to pick his mother up from the Sea-Tac Airport after her days-long vacation with Robert D. Kowalski, police in Yakutat were cordoning off the couple’s bedroom at the Glacier Bear Lodge. Kowalski had shot Sandra M. Perry in the head with a Mossberg 12-gauge “bear-killer” shotgun slug, probably from a distance of a foot or two.
“I had a bad feeling, and I started freaking out,” Padgett said Thursday from the witness stand in Juneau Superior Court, remembering his wait at the airport.
The panicked teenager went home after a while, and his friends came over and drank beer with him to help calm him down. Then, it came: a knock at the door.
“A sheriff was there and told me she died,” recalled Padgett, of Graham, Wash., who is now 34 and has a wife and kids of his own.
Padgett, Perry’s oldest son, was the first person the state called to the witness stand to testify against Kowalski, who is standing trial for murdering Perry. Kowalski is charged with first-degree and second-degree murder and could be facing life in prison if convicted.
Thursday was the first day of what’s expected to be a three-to-four week trial, and prosecutors aimed to show that Perry — who died on July 21, 1996 — was a real, living, breathing person who had a family that loved her.
The jury saw two pictures of her: a professional portrait and a candid family photograph of her near Washington’s Mt. Rainier with her youngest son, then about 4 years old and now 25. The defense objected to the latter picture, saying prosecutors were “smartly” trying to garner sympathy with the jury, but the judge allowed it.
Padgett gripped the photographs in his hands while testifying, and said that Kowalski and his mother had been dating about a year before she died.
“My mom was head over heels for him,” he said. “She thought she was going to marry him.”
Under questioning from the lead prosecutor, Padgett testified that Kowalski answered his questions about the shooting when he asked Kowalski about it several months after Perry’s death. It was the only conversation they had about it, he said.
“I wanted answers,” he said about the August 1996 conversation. “I wanted to understand.”
Padgett testified that Kowalski told him that he and Perry had heard a sound outside the lodge window and thought it was a bear, and that Kowalski went to the window to look outside. Kowalski said he tripped on a cord on the way back to the bed and that the gun went off and hit Perry as she sat in the bed.
Prosecutors referred to this as the “cord story,” which they criticized as one of the many versions of events Kowalski gave to investigators.
“He can’t tell the story the same way twice,” sneered the lead prosecutor, James Fayette, in opening statements.
Fayette, an assistant attorney general with the Anchorage-based Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, said Kowalski gave other versions of events wherein the gun went off because Perry startled him by saying “Boo” when he was by the window looking for the bear, and because he tripped over a bed post.
The state didn’t always think Kowalski’s statements were inconsistent. An memo from November 1996 shows then-Juneau District Attorney Richard Svobodny believed there were no real contradictions in Kowalski’s statements, though they might appear inconsistent on their face. Svobodny never charged the case, saying it was difficult to disprove Kowalski’s claim that it was accidental.
“There is a change in story from one statement to the other, but no one statement contradicts what was said in another statement and any apparent contradiction would appear to be the use of different words in explaining what happened at different times or the prodding of Kowalski’s memory for more details,” the memo states.
The defense moved to enter that memo into evidence, but Judge Louis Menendez ruled earlier this week that it was not relevant and not a binding statement.
Either way, Kowalski had pointed a loaded gun at the woman and pulled the trigger, Fayette told jurors Thursday. Fayette showed the jury the gun within the first five minutes of the trial by having the chief Alaska State Trooper investigator take it out of a long, narrow evidence box and hoist it up in the courtroom.
The prosecutor told the jury that there is new evidence that will prove Perry’s death was intentional, but he did not elaborate. He promised to “make good” on that promise later at trial.
Kowalski’s attorney, on the other hand, told the jury that there was no new evidence in the case, except one major detail: Kowalski was convicted of homicide for killing his girlfriend in Montana in 2008. That conviction (via an Alford plea, which means Kowalski maintained his innocence but conceded the state of Montana had enough evidence to convict him) was the only reason the Perry cold case was re-opened in 2009, Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland said.
The law prohibits the jury from considering the Montana conviction in this trial.
“You can’t convict him based on the Montana conviction,” Hedland said, pointing to a special jury instruction that outlines the law.
Hedland said it was “intuitively logical” for prosecutors to take another look at Perry’s case in light of the Montana homicide, but he urged the jury to consider whether prosecutors were doing “anything other than drawing a new narrative because we want something to believe that this is true, because we want to say, ‘Lightning can’t strike twice.’”
Hedland added that investigators did “a good job” investigating the case the first time and when the case was re-opened. Troopers interviewed everyone involved, recreated the crime scene, performed re-enactments and re-tested ballistics, blood spatter and fingerprints. But the new investigation did not turn up anything new, Hedland said.
“There’s nothing added to the original report of an accidental shooting,” he said. “In fact, the things that were done later confirmed Kowalski’s story.”
Under cross-examination by Hedland, Padgett recalled being mad that Kowalski came to his mother’s funeral. But he did recall that Kowalski was distraught and crying, which is consistent with other witness reports. Hedland questioned Padgett about the so-called “cord story” and whether Padgett may have heard that from someone else.
“I’m pretty sure that comment came from Robert’s mouth,” Padgett replied, though he added that he had heard so many different stories about the event that it “kind of seems silly.”
Padgett said under cross-examination that Kowalski never avoided his questions about the shooting and that Kowalski did not disappear after the shooting. He noted that he received settlement money from a civil lawsuit that stemmed from the shooting.
Prosecutors also called in witnesses who were present at the lodge, including a waitress who served the couple drinks the night of the shooting and the chef who saw them near the kitchen at dinner.
The waitress, Martha Swank, said she recalled serving both Kowalski and Perry a couple of drinks each the night of the shooting, which took place around 3 a.m. She said there was nothing remarkable about her interaction with them. The chef, Swank’s husband Greg Swank, said he recalled seeing the couple because it was pointed out to him that they were friends with the lodge’s owner. He recalled them appearing to have a good time.
“They were smiling and having fun,” he said.
He recalled that the two were a little buzzed by the time he closed the kitchen for the night.
The Swanks’ recollection of Kowalski and Perry as a happy couple vastly differed from testimony from Robert Lee Doddy, who was staying at the lodge on a business trip with his brother-in-law. Doddy testified that he witnessed Kowalski yell at Perry as she was socializing with a group of fishermen after she and Kowalski had gotten back from riding a four-wheeler in the woods.
“It was a wild scene,” Doddy recalled, adding that Kowalski used profanity and screamed at Perry to get her “****ing ass” back to their room.
Under cross-examination, Hedland asked Doddy why he never told troopers what he witnessed. Hedland showed that Doddy previously told troopers that Kowalski told Perry to “get your butt” back to the room and that Doddy left out the other details.
The exchange offended Doddy, who said he is now pushing 70. He asked Hedland, “Are you trying to make a liar out of me?”
Hedland said no, but he was simply wondering if Doddy could be exaggerating without realizing it in order to help the state catch a so-described murderer.
Hedland also pressed Doddy on his testimony about what his brother-in-law heard on the night of the shooting. Doddy and his brother-in-law were staying in a room adjacent to Kowalski and Perry, and Doddy said Thursday that his brother-in-law awoke him in the middle of the night because his brother-in-law heard yelling, screaming and shouting and then a gunshot. Hedland pointed out that Doddy told troopers that the only thing his brother-in-law said was “something bad happened” and that he heard a gunshot.
Doddy testified that he did not hear the gunshot, which still baffles him. The brother-in-law is expected to testify later at trial.
After Doddy was excused from the courtroom, he stopped by the defendant’s table, and shook hands with Hedland and said, “Thanks for not tearing me up too hard.”
Prosecutors also called one of Kowalski’s old friends to the stand. Alberto Carranza testified he took Kowalski moose hunting in Yakutat a couple of years before 1996. That’s what gave Kowalski the idea to bring Perry up there for a vacation, he said.
Carranza said he knew the owners of the lodge and introduced them to Kowalski, which is why he and Perry had stayed at the Glacier Bay Lodge on their vacation. Carranza said the owner of the lodge was the person who lent Kowalski the shotgun.
Under questioning for prosecutors, Carranza said troopers called him a day or two after the shooting and asked him to escort Kowalski back to Washington since he was so distraught.
“He wasn’t there,” Carranza said of Kowalski’s mental state when he picked him up from the airport. “His soul was gone.”
Carranza said he worried Kowalski was going to kill himself, so he let him stay at his place for a few weeks. A few weeks after the shooting, Kowalski told him about the shooting, Carranza said.
Carranza said Kowalski told him he was in the shower when Perry told him she thought she heard a bear, and that he grabbed the shotgun and stood by the window. But, Carranza said, Perry startled Kowalski by growling like a bear as a joke, which caused Kowalski to trip over a stool or rug and the firearm to discharge. Afterward, Kowalski was in shock and went over to Perry and held her in his arms as she bled, Carranza testified.
Prosecutor Fayette said Carranza previously told troopers that Perry said “Boo” rather than making a growling sound. Carranza said he could not remember his earlier interview with troopers.
Time ran out before Carranza could be cross-examined; that’s where the trial is expected to pick up today.
Padgett, meanwhile, observed the court proceedings from the gallery after he was done testifying. He endured graphic descriptions about his mother’s death, including the fact that Kowalski “blew her head clean off” her body, as the prosecutor put it. He looked ill at times and at others looked to be fighting back tears.
After giving testimony, he declined to be interviewed.
“My nerves are shot,” he said.
Padgett noted he will not be staying for the whole trial but wants to be in the courtroom to represent his family for a few more days before he goes back home.