What does the crime scene — Room 10 of Glacier Bear Lodge in Yakutat — tell us about how Sandra M. Perry died on July 21, 1996?
A crime scene re-creation specialist took the witness stand Thursday to try to answer that question during the second week of a trial against Perry’s former boyfriend, Robert D. Kowalski, 53, who is facing two counts of murder in connection to Perry’s death.
Prosecutors say Kowalski intentionally shot the 39-year-old woman; Kowalski claims it was an accident. He said he tripped in the bedroom while holding a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun. The firearm discharged, killing Perry on the spot.
Testimony from William D. Gifford, a retired investigator with the Alaska State Troopers’ Cold Case Homicide Unit, did not provide any clear answers about whether the shooting was an accident or not, and left plenty of room for interpretation for attorneys to argue their respective sides during closing arguments.
Gifford said Perry, who was sitting on one of the room’s two twin-sized beds when she was shot in the chin with a slug traveling from left to right and slightly upward, could not have been shot from the foot of the bed where Kowalski said he tripped over the wheel attached to the leg of the bed frame, according to one of Kowalski’s statements to police in 1996.
“The gunshot residue does not support that, the direction that the gunshot residue is traveling from left to right and upward does not support that, and the bloodstain evidence on the wall does not support that,” Gifford said under questioning from Assistant Attorney General James Fayette. “So everything basically says it could not have happened from there.”
On the other hand, there was nothing to dispute the scenario that Kowalski was falling or had fallen on the bed or had fallen on the bed and was pushing himself up when the fatal gunshot was fired, Kowalski’s attorney established during cross-examination.
Those possibilities are left open in part because the shot was angled upward — the muzzle of the gun was higher than the butt of the weapon when it fired.
Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland also said that since the bed was about 75 inches long and the gun was about 44 inches long, that means if Kowalski had fallen on the bed, the gun would have taken up about four-sevenths of the bed’s length. Hedland suggested that means Kowalski would have had to be sitting or laying down to create that upward angle, not standing between the two beds as prosecutors seem to be alleging.
Investigators could not determine the precise angle Perry was shot or the trajectory of the slug because investigators had only one of two fixed points necessary to make those determinations: they had an entry wound but not an exit wound. Investigators also could not determine precisely where Kowalski was in the room when the gun was fired.
On cross-examination, Gifford also confirmed an important point for the defense: The wheel attached to the leg of the bed could have tripped Kowalski. Gifford said it was shaped like a “J” and it was possible to stumble over it while walking by the bed. Gifford said that was one of the primary reasons he traveled to the Yakutat lodge in 2011 to recreate the scene.
The trial is slated to last three weeks and will continue today with Gifford’s cross-examination. The lead trooper in charge of the investigation is also slated to testify.
Kowalski could be facing life in prison if convicted. He is already serving a 40-year prison sentence in connection to a 2008 Montana homicide, which served as the impetus for reopening the Yakutat case in 2009.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.