Jury Awards Cornejo

Gotwalt Blamed In ’05 Killing of Steve Cornejo

A Fairfax County jury ruled in favor of the family of slain Jack Stephen “Steve” Cornejo of Falls Church yesterday, finding the man who shot the then 22-year old to death in June 2005 culpable for a “wrongful death.” Sending a resolute message, the jury awarded the family almost $2 million in damages, far more than the $300,000 it sought.

Two eyewitnesses to the killing provided compelling evidence that contradicted the “self defense accidental shooting” account of the assailant, Brandon Paul Gotwalt. One testified both that he saw Gotwalt as the aggressor who was on top of Cornejo and hit him with the butt of his pistol repeatedly before shooting him at close range in the upper back. The other said he saw a flash and heard the shot, and saw Gotwalt, “on top of” the victim, get up and run away. Both also said they heard someone say twice, “Why do you want to take my life?” before the shot was fired.

After the verdict, Cornejo’s aunt Corinia Menjivar, said, “These damages do not compensate for the loss of Steve, but before we had nothing, and now we have just a little.” Her comments to the News-Press came moments after her and 21 family members and friends emerged from the courtroom after learning of the verdict shortly after noon yesterday and stopped in the hall to pray.

The family had “nothing” before because Gotwalt, the man found responsible for Cornejo’s death yesterday, escaped any criminal charges associated with the killing, which happened at the end of a birthday party in the early morning hours of June 25, 2005.

Not only that, but Fairfax Police and the office of Commonwealth Attorney Robert Horan refused to reveal the identity of Gotwalt for over a year until Cornejo family attorney Malik Cutlar filed the “wrongful death” suit against “John Doe” to force the release of police records with subpoenas last spring.

Yesterday’s jury ruling, “is just the beginning,” said Austin Cornejo, father of the slain City of Falls Church native who attended public schools here and graduated from George Mason High in 2000 shortly after leading its boys soccer team to a state championship as its popular co-captain.

“We are going to pursue further legal action,” the father told the News-Press after the verdict.

Horan told the News-Press yesterday that while he felt the investigation was thorough and did not turn up any significant contradiction to Gotwalt’s version of the events at the time, he added that Fairfax Police officers were present at this week’s trial. He said that if they determine there was new evidence presented there that the Grand Jury did not have access to in 2005, criminal charges may still be considered.

At the time, Horan said, police did what he called a “thorough investigation” and found no one who would contradict Gotwalt’s account.

“It just seemed like a case of a Good Samaritan who came to the defense of a woman he heard screaming and a fight ensued and an accidental firing took place,” he said.

But that’s not how the Cornejo family recalled it. They said that the eyewitnesses were known all along, and that they could not interest anyone in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office in gaining more evidence. They faced, they said, a “complete stonewalling.”

Moreover, Horan did not take the case to the Grand Jury, himself, virtually unprecedented for him in the case of a homicide. He let a police officer present the case instead, and no indictment, either for murder or manslaughter, resulted.

Gotwalt is a former aviation electronics technician and an air warfare specialist 2nd Class at the U.S. Navy, now employed as an engineer at Argon ST, a security firm in Fairfax County.

The trial before Judge David Stitt and a jury of four women and three men began Monday and the jury went into deliberations mid-afternoon Tuesday. It returned to the courtroom with its verdict at 12:07 p.m. yesterday.

After the verdict was read, Judge Stitt did not respond to an objection by Gotwalt’s attorney, John Keats, that the $1,964,000 award, and another $15,588 to cover Cornejo’s funeral expenses, “grossly exceeded” the $300,000 request originally requested by the family.

Cornejo family attorney Cultar, based in Arlington, was elated with the outcome. In a telephone interview with the News-Press, he said, “I am very happy for the family, and I am proud of the jurors. They were not about to let a guy who shot another guy walk away without being held responsible.”

The evidence, he said, showed that “this was in no way a self-defense shooting,” citing a witness who “was five feet away and saw that the guy had the upper hand, shot Steve and ran away.”

While making no comment about further legal action, Cutlar said, “It is amazing to me that it took a civil trial to get this result. I don’t get it. I presume the Commonwealth Attorney’s office just dug in its heels, saying ‘We made a decision and will stick with it.’”

Cutlar said Horan’s office “did not go after the evidence,” noting that it took almost a year, and his “John Doe” lawsuit, for the identity of the assailant to be made public. “The family members are entitled to know all the information about a case in which one of their own was killed,” he said.

The key testimony in the trial was presented on the first day. First came Gotwalt with his version, claiming that around 4:30 a.m. that fateful Saturday morning, he heard shouting outside his apartment in the Fair Oaks section of Fairfax County, looked out and saw two men and a woman and “saw a man shaking the woman.”

He said he called police and then grabbed a .38 revolver loaded with “snake shot” (smaller pellets than used in a standard shotgun), stuck it in his shorts and headed outside.  

One man and the woman left the scene, leaving Cornejo there. According to Gotwalt, a verbal exchange escalated and Gotwalt made the first physical contact, and then punched Cornejo in the face with his fist when he “came at me.”

Gotwalt then claimed that Cornejo wrestled him to the ground, putting his hands around his neck and choking him. Gotwalt said he grabbed his gun and struck Cornejo on the head three times in defense. The gun then moved around to Cornejo’s back and went off accidentally.

Gotwalt admitted to fleeing the scene, tearing up his shirt and flushing it, and the gun cartridge down the toilet. When police arrived and found Cornejo dead, he said he decided to go down and tell his story.

However, two plaintiff witnesses directly contradicted Gotwalt’s account. One, Giuseppe Amadeo, who works as a project manager for a development company, also resided in the apartment complex. He said he saw the whole incident through the window of his apartment, about 10 feet from where Cornejo was shot.

He said he saw the two men, Gotwalt and Cornejo, fighting and wrestling. He then saw Gotwalt produce a gun and hitting Cornejo on the head. He said he heard someone shout, ‘Why are you trying to take my life?’ twice. He then testified that he saw Gotwalt suddenly get the upper hand, and stood up behind Cornejo. As Cornejo came to his knees, he was shot from behind, and the Gotwalt then fled the scene.

(An autopsy of Cornejo corroborated the account, citing the gunshot wound that entered from the upper back, and bruises to Cornejo’s head.)

Amadeo said he then ran to Cornejo, meeting another witness there, Edward Daniel, an Army medic who also lived in the apartment building. Amadeo said he searched for the wound and found it on Cornejo’s back. He then tore his shirt and attempted to use it to stop the bleeding while the medic checked his pulse.

Daniel testified in the trial that, from his apartment, after being awakened by arguing, he heard someone yell, “Why are you trying to take my life?” twice and seconds later he heard a gun go off and saw a flash. He saw two men, he said, on the ground with their arms around each other. After the gunshot, he testified, “The guy on top took off running.”

After running to check on Cornejo and meeting Amadeo there, he said Cornejo’s pulse, which was strong at first, became weaker and finally stopped about a minute before paramedics arrived.

Other witnesses, including the girl and the man originally seen with Cornejo who left before the encounter between Cornejo and Gotwalt appeared, were not witnesses to the actual shooting. They did testify that there was no physical assault by Cornejo before Gotwalt arrived.

Cutlar, in his closing argument, said of Gotwalt, “His are not the actions of of someone who has just acted in self defense, noting that Gotwalt testified that he told police at first that he’d been wearing no shirt during the incident because he didn’t want to face a concealed weapons charge. The only reason Gotwalt returned to the scene to admit his involvement was because Gotwalt realized he’d left his sandals and glasses there.