On July 21, 1996, Sandra Perry, a 29-year-old Seattle-based mother of three, and her boyfriend, Robert Kowalski, 34, were vacationing at the Glacier Bear Lodge in Yakutat, Alaska, a popular fishing destination.
Kowalski claimed that in the middle of the night he’d heard a bear and grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun that was on hand for protection. While investigating the situation, Kowalski tripped and fell, he said, and as he got up, he accidentally shot Perry in the face and killed her.
Lt. Merlin Ehlers, a retired investigator with the Alaska State Troopers, described the scene as “devastating.”
“The top of her head was gone,” he told “Accident, Suicide or Murder,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Perry’s family members were shaken by her horrifying death. “It broke us to the core,” said her sister Kathy Barnett.
Authorities had serious questions about the supposed mishap, including why Kowalski waited nearly 10 hours to report the shooting. Why didn’t he call for help?
Perry’s autopsy created another puzzle. There was a perfect circular mark on Perry’s chest that appeared to have been made by the muzzle of the shotgun. The physical evidence was inconsistent with Kowalski’s version of the deadly events.
An interview with a guest at the lodge added another layer of mystery to the case. The individual told officials that he believed he’d heard a heated argument before hearing a shotgun blast, according to a 2014 KTOO article.
However, officials didn’t have much information to glean from witnesses and Kowalski didn’t have a history of violence. The medical examiner classified Perry’s death as an accidental shooting.
Perry’s family grieved and grappled with the loss. Although they originally believed Kowalski was good for Perry, they began to have doubts at her funeral. They didn’t hear from him much after that, said Barnett.
After about two years, they began to privately look into her shooting. Their investigation hit a roadblock, though, when they discovered that case evidence had been destroyed. That, they learned, was standard operating procedure in an accidental shooting.
Barnett filed a wrongful-death suit against Kowalski in civil court, according to a 12016 article from the Anchorage Daily News. He eventually had to pay $300,000 — $100,000 for each of Perry’s children.
The family sought to move on and to put the tragedy behind them. But a decade later, a shooting in Columbia Falls, Montana brought the events back in a flash.
On March 16, 2008, a 911 call reported that Lorraine Kay Morin, a 45-year-old mother of six children, had been shot to death. The shooter was Robert Kowalski, according to his roommate who Kowalski had told about the shooting.
Authorities raced to Morin’s home, where they found her dead with a v-shaped cut on her body. They sealed the place as a crime scene, while another unit went to Kowalski’s home.
A 29-hour standoff with authorities ensued during which Kowalski threatened suicide and waved a handgun. Kowalski was finally arrested after tear gas canisters were sent into his home.
Kowalski then claimed Morin came home intoxicated and they argued. He said he fired a gunshot into the TV set and then accidentally shot her in the face. He didn’t call for help and waited hours to inform anyone of the shooting, according to “Accident, Suicide or Murder.”
Kowalski was charged with murder, and in January 2019, he entered a guilty plea in the shooting death. In exchange for the plea, the county attorney’s office dismissed deliberate homicide charges and recommended Kowalski be sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Following Morin’s slaying, Perry’s case was reopened for investigation. The medical examiner re-categorized Perry’s death as a homicide. At trial, the jury was able to hear facts about the Morin case in Montana that echoed events in Alaska. In 2014, Kowalski was convicted of Perry’s murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison, the Associated Press reported at the time.
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