A Juneau jury heard a new twist on a old case Tuesday when they learned that a man accused of murdering his girlfriend at a Yakutat lodge 17 years ago was married at the time and, in the moments before the fatal gunshot, may have argued with his lover about divorcing his wife.
Alaska prosecutors have never before publicly suggested a motive for the fatal shooting of Sandra M. Perry, who was shot in the head by Robert D. Kowalski in July 1996. Kowalski claims it was an accident, and prosecutors at the time did not charge him with a crime because they could not disprove the claim.
That changed on Tuesday, in the second week of the trial, when Assistant Attorney General James Fayette called Kowalski’s ex-wife, Karen Kowalski, to the witness stand and she confirmed that the argument overheard in Room 10 of Glacier Bear Lodge before the 3 a.m. shooting was about her.
“He said, ‘Yeah,’ that they were fighting because she wanted him to get a divorce, and he said he would never divorce me, and that’s what they were arguing about,” K. Kowalski said under Fayette’s questioning, recalling a conversation she had with Kowalski in the weeks following Perry’s death.
Under cross-examination, however, K. Kowalski conceded that isn’t what she told Juneau grand jurors who indicted Kowalski on two counts of murder in 2011. She told the grand jury that Kowalski told her that he and Perry fought about the divorce issue, but she did not tell grand jurors that was what the lovers had been specifically been arguing about on the night of the shooting. The defense also pointed out other inconsistencies in her statement that did not match other testimony heard thus far at trial.
Before Tuesday, testimony suggested the argument overheard in the room might have been about which souvenirs (rocks and feathers the couple found combing beaches) they should take home. The defense maintains there was no argument at all, and Perry talked loudly because of a hearing problem from her flight to Alaska. She also normally talked with profanity, as other witnesses have testified.
K. Kowalski, now a 49-year-old resident of Ohio, said she did not know about her husband’s affair, and Kowalski even refused to admit it when she confronted him after the shooting.
“I asked him if him and Sandy were together, and he told me no,” she said.
The Kowalskis, who were married in 1987 and had two sons together, lived in Auburn, Wash. K. Kowalski worked in a factory, while her husband made airplane parts for Boeing. At some time in the mid-’90s, the two decided to relocate their family because it looked like Kowalski might lose his job amid Boeing layoffs. The plan was to relocate to Ohio, where K. Kowalski’s parents lived. K. Kowalski left for Ohio with their children so she could enroll them in school, and Kowalski stayed behind in Washington to sell their house. They ended up being apart for nearly a year.
Toward the end of that year, Kowalski informed his wife that he was going up to Alaska on vacation to go “gold panning,” she said, noting he made no mention of a female companion. Then one day, likely the day of or after the July 21, 1996, shooting, she received a phone call from him.
“I was sitting at home and I got a phone call, and it was Bob, and he was screaming and yelling, and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying,” she said. “The only word I could make out was ‘I’m sorry’ and he wouldn’t say anything after that.”
She recalled the owner of the lodge, James Ross, then got on the line and told her that Kowalski was with a woman who was shot, and that the woman was not ‘OK.’ K. Kowalski said she received a phone call the next day from Perry’s sister, and that conversation confirmed her suspicion that Kowalski was cheating on her.
She took off work and went back to Washington about a week or two later. K. Kowalski said she heard about three different stories from different people and wanted answers. She confronted Kowalski at their Washington home.
“He told me I’m going to tell you this once, and I’m never going to say it again,” she remembered, noting that he took her to Perry’s fresh gravesite and cried before the confrontational conversation.
Kowalski told her that he and Perry were in their bedroom at the lodge, and Perry had just gotten out of the shower, sat on the bed and was smoking a cigarette. Perry thought she heard a bear, so Kowalski grabbed the shotgun and went to the front door to check for bears. When he came back in the bedroom, he kicked the bed frame on accident and fell on top of Perry with the shotgun still in hand. Perry said “Move,” but as Kowalski pushed to get off her, the gun discharged, she said.
Husband and wife divorced within a year of that emotional confrontation.
Prosecutors have criticized Kowalski for not being able to tell “the same story twice.” The same story has been repeated for the jury with different variations, including one where Kowalski tripped over a cord, causing the gun to discharge, and one where he accidentally shot Perry while handing her a cigarette. Other versions have Perry saying “Boo” or growling like a bear. K. Kowalski’s version of what Kowalski told her is the only one that has Kowalski checking for bears at the door rather than out the bedroom window.
Kowalski’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland, has stressed for the jury that Kowalski was extraordinarily distraught after the shooting, and the only reason the stories may sound inconsistent is because Kowalski was literally unable to communicate words at the time. Several witnesses have testified about Kowalski’s emotional distress, but the strongest witness to that was James Ross, the former owner of the lodge, who testified he is still convinced that the shooting was a “horrible accident.”
Ross, who testified Tuesday after K. Kowalski, said he was loading logs at the mill three or four blocks away from the lodge when someone came and said he was needed at the lodge immediately. He drove there and found Kowalski sitting inconsolable with Martha Indreland, Ross’ then-wife, who also owned the lodge with Ross’ mother.
Ross said Kowalski was in such bad shape that his wife had to fill in for him what had happened.
“A mess doesn’t even begin to cover what Mr. Kowalski was,” Ross said under questions from Hedland. “He was a babbling idiot, could not make a word out.”
Ross said Kowalski was given medication because he was so distraught.
“I don’t even have to hesitate: No,” Ross said when asked by Hedland if Kowalski was faking it. “If he was faking, then he ought to be in Hollywood, not Alaska, because there’s absolutely no way that an individual can create tears for that extended period of time, in my opinion. I’m no professional, but I can’t imagine anybody could possibly fake that.”
Ross said he could only make out three words Kowalski was saying in the office: “Boo”, “Bang,” and “Bear.” He said he was able to put together a picture of what happened by prompting him.
But, he said, “It was like playing charades.”
A rookie Yakutat police officer, James Jensen Jr. arrived on scene and attempted to interview Kowalski. Ross said he was there for the initial portion of the interview and Kowalski was still being incoherent. Ross said he tried to help the police officer decipher what Kowalski was saying, but the officer asked him to leave.
Jensen, now a sergeant, testified Monday and Tuesday about what he thought Kowalski was telling him and acknowledged that it was very difficult to take a statement from him. But, Jensen said, he left with the nagging impression that Kowalski was telling him inconsistent stories.
The defense has argued that there’s no way to verify what that interview was like — or any of the police and Alaska State Trooper interviews from 1996 — because troopers destroyed the audio tapes and other physical evidence in 1998. The defense says that leaves Kowalski with no way to defend himself against the evidence, and Kowalski’s attorney asked the judge to give the jury a special instruction that requires them to view all destroyed evidence as favorable to Kowalski.
Prosecutors fought that vigorously on Tuesday morning during lengthy arguments held away from the jury. Prosecutor Fayette said there might not be audio recordings, but there are transcripts or police summaries of the interviews Kowalski gave to police.
The judge presiding over the trial, Louis Menendez, took those arguments into consideration and will rule shortly on the matter. State statues allow judges to impose sanctions — whether it be giving the jury special instructions to suppressing evidence to outright dismissing the case — when the government destroys or loses evidence in its possession.
The trial, slated to last thee weeks, will pick up again today with testimony from a now-retired investigator who took pictures of the crime scene in 1996.
Kowalski is facing life in prison if convicted. He is already serving a 40-year prison sentence for killing his girlfriend in Montana in 2008. That event was the impetus for Alaska investigators tp reopen the Yakutat cold case.
Evidence at trial so far has shown that Kowalski and Perry, who often are called Bob and Sandy in court by witnesses, appeared to be a happy couple in love. It appeared no one at the lodge was wise about the affair.
Ross was another witness who confirmed that Kowalski and Perry had a relationship comparable to a “high school romance.”
“Geez, this is going to sound corny, but love was in the air,” Ross said, of Kowalski and Perry.
Ross’ ex-wife, Indreland, who operated the Glacier Bear Lodge until 2004, said the same thing when she testified Monday, as did other lodge employees.
Both Indreland and Ross said in their testimony that “Bob” appeared happy-go-lucky shaggy-haired guy, while Sandy was more “rough around the edges.” Ross pointed out that Perry swore enough to put him to shame, and he worked at a logging mill when he wasn’t running his business. Indreland said at that time she was more conservative and involved with the church and was a little uncomfortable by all the swearing.
Not one of the witnesses from the lodge so far has recognized Kowalski — 35 at the time of the shooting — as he appears now in the courtroom at age 53. Life has taken its toll on all of them, and they all look a little different, they observed.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Martha Indreland still operates the Glacier Bear Lodge. Indreland has not owned the lodge since 2004.