Robert Piwowar led police to his missing wife's body Thursday afternoon near Tifft Nature Preserve in exchange for a guarantee that he won't face murder charges.
Michelle Piwowar's body was found just south of the preserve, adjacent to George J. Hartman Playfields, 12 days after she left her Town of Hamburg home with her husband for the last time. Authorities said Piwowar strangled and bludgeoned his wife to death near the South Buffalo nature sanctuary before burying her body there. In exchange for leading detectives to the body, Piwowar will plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter and prosecutors will not seek the maximum sentence, authorities said.
The agreement was hammered out late Thursday morning between Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark's office and Piwowar's attorney, Charles J. Gallagher.
Investigators, family and friends had conducted more than a dozen extensive searches for Michelle Piwowar since Oct. 23, including at least once at the nature preserve.
Police did not elaborate on the condition of the body. The motive for the slaying also remained unclear, although there was a history of domestic violence, authorities said.
Authorities said Piwowar, 36, directed them to his wife's body shortly after the agreement was struck. He was then charged with first-degree manslaughter and was taken into custody without bail pending arraignment at 9 a.m. today in Buffalo City Court.
First-degree manslaughter carries a penalty of five to 25 years in prison.
As part of the agreement, prosecutors agreed not to ask for the full 25 years, Clark said. Piwowar, therefore, could face anywhere from five to 24 years at sentencing.
"We have been in discussions with the attorney representing Piwowar a number of times over the past 10 days," Clark said. "Our intent was to see if he would lead us to the body, and we would offer a plea to manslaughter in the first degree."
Piwowar had been jailed on a felony criminal contempt charge from Hamburg since shortly after the incident for violating an order of protection. It was at least the third order of protection he disregarded during the marriage, authorities said.
Thursday's agreement between prosecutors and Piwowar was said to have the support of Michelle Piwowar's family, which had been seeking closure in the case.
"Not having the body and with the prospect that we might never find the body, it was in everybody's best interest (to make the deal)," Clark said.
Michelle Piwowar's parents declined to comment when reached Thursday afternoon.
Authorities used yellow crime tape to close off the semi-wooded area near the Hartman baseball diamond, where the body was found.
Family and friends searched that area before, said Craig Cobb, a family friend. "We were in the general vicinity," he said. Cobb, on behalf of the family, thanked those who offered their assistance.
Early in the investigation, once investigators sensed that the 35-year-old mother of three had been the victim of foul play, they never had any difficulty labeling Robert Piwowar the prime suspect, authorities said. They cited several reasons:
Witnesses have told police they saw the couple leaving Michelle Piwowar's Hamburg home early on the morning of Oct. 23, one day before Robert Piwowar reported her missing.
Robert Piwowar had a recent history of violating court orders of protection, and police have said he had been physically abusive to her in their marriage.
Investigators also found a small amount of her blood inside his vehicle, some of her hair in the trunk and some dried dirt in his ear. Detectives had speculated that the dirt could have come from him burying her body.
Even if the body hadn't been found, Clark had said he planned to take the case to an Erie County grand jury in the near future. Prosecuting a homicide without a body is rare but not unprecedented in Western New York.
Without a body, Clark explained, prosecutors would have needed strong circumstantial evidence, the kind that would exclude all other explanations for a person's disappearance and killing.