A federal judge Wednesday locked up a key player in a fraud investigation that revolves around a clout-heavy Bridgeport bank because he allegedly reached out to the bank president’s widow over a lawsuit he filed seeking to have the president’s body exhumed.
That was among several violations U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall ticked off at the end of a lengthy hearing before she ordered Robert Kowalski taken into custody. John Gembara, the president of Washington Federal Bank for Savings, was found dead in 2017 of what was ruled to be a suicide inside the million-dollar Park Ridge home of a bank customer.
“The most salacious detail about the case is that the president of the bank committed suicide, right?” Kendall told Kowalski during the hearing. “That was the most significant detail that hit every news channel and every newspaper.”
The judge added that Kowalski tried to get the widow, Theresa Gembara, to side with him “in order to investigate the death as a murder as opposed to as a suicide.”
It’s a strange new twist in a case that began when police reports show Gembara appeared to have hanged himself in a bedroom in the Park Ridge home. They show Gembara’s body was discovered Dec. 3, 2017, in a seated position, fully clothed, with his glasses on and a green rope wrapped around his neck and tied to the bannister of a spiral staircase.
Prosecutors asked Kendall this week to throw Kowalski in jail for writing to Gembara’s widow. They consider her a potential witness in the case that has so far led to the indictment of six people, including Kowalski. He filed his lawsuit against Park Ridge last week, questioning the nature of Gembara’s death. It asked a judge to force the Park Ridge Police Department to release more information about its investigation — and to order the exhumation of Gembara’s body.
In the lawsuit, Kowalski said Gembara and his widow were godparents to one of Kowalski’s children, and it said their families “shared a multi-generational association.”
On Wednesday, Kowalski insisted he “knew this man for 30 years,” adding that Gembara’s suicide “didn’t make a whole lot of sense.” He told the judge that he wanted to let Gembara’s widow know about his lawsuit, explaining. “I really didn’t want to see her, but I wanted to advise her that I was going forward with this.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Petersen said Kowalski wrote “please meet with me” on a document sent to the widow. Prosecutors shared the documents with the judge under seal.
Imani Chiphe, Kowalski’s attorney, told the judge it had been unclear that Gembara’s widow was considered a potential witness, but Kendall told Kowalski his explanation for reaching out to her revealed how critical she might be.
“You are trying hard to find out something about this suicide and turning it into a murder or saying it is a murder,” Kendall said.
The feds also said last week that Kowalski should be locked up over a separate alleged incident involving Kowalski’s sister — Jan Kowalski — and Kowalski’s girlfriend — who is also the mother of his youngest child.
Robert and Jan Kowalski have faced federal bankruptcy fraud charges since March 2019. This summer, the feds expanded the case against them with an indictment alleging four employees of Gembara’s bank helped Kowalski and others embezzle at least $29 million. Federal regulators abruptly shut down the bank in December 2017 amid a massive fraud investigation.