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F.C. Mayor Gardner Urges Fairfax Co. to Investigate Cornejo Case

Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner took another swipe at mighty Fairfax County Tuesday, contacting county officials urging a special investigation into the circumstances that led to no criminal charges being filed against the killer of Falls Church native Jack Stephen “Steve” Cornejo in 2004.

“I want to know why no sufficient investigation was done at the time,” Gardner told the News-Press Tuesday. Last week, a Fairfax jury found that the shooting death of Cornejo was “wrongful” and ordered the assailant, Brandon Paul Gotwalt, to pay almost $2 million in damages.

But that was only after a civil suit was brought against Gotwalt. Fairfax Police never arrested Gotwalt following the June 25, 2004 shooting and the office of Commonwealth Attorney Robert Horan filed no charges. No would they permit the release of the assailant’s identity. Horan conceded, however, in comments to the News-Press last week that “if there is evidence that surfaced in the civil trial that is more than what the Grand Jury received in 2004, then criminal charges could still be filed.”

Horan said that “at the time the only evidence was Gotwalt’s own account, which sounded like self-defense.” However, according to Cornejo family members, they knew from the beginning there were two eyewitnesses to saw who saw Gotwalt as the aggressor, but that no one among Fairfax police investigators or the Commonwealth Attorney’s office was interested.

Cornejo was a popular and well-liked child of the City of Falls Church school system. As a senior at George Mason High School in 2000, he co-captained the school’s state championship soccer team.

But the stubborn refusal of county officials to file any charges against Gotwalt, a Navy veteran and employee at a government contractor security firm, led members of the Cornejo family, and many of his friends in Falls Church, to suspect racial prejudice was a major contributing factor. Moreover, county officials resolutely refused to disclose the identity of Gotwalt to anyone, including family members, the media, private investigators and attorneys.

When the News-Press was unable to secure any information about the assailant following the killing, it hired a private investigator who was also ineffective. It was not until the Cornejo family eventually obtained the services of an attorney, Molik Cutlar, that a “John Doe” civil lawsuit was filed permitting the subpoena of police records and, as a result, the killer’s identity was publicly revealed.

“This is not the first case of this type that I have learned about in Fairfax County,” Mayor Gardner told the News-Press. “I am pushing very hard for the county to conduct an internal investigation of what is going on.” Gardner has also been very outspoken in support of a lawsuit brought against Fairfax County by the City of Falls Church concerning a dispute over water distribution.

In the Cornejo matter, Gardner said she planned to contact the county’s auditor, John Adair, and members of the Board of Supervisors’ audit committee that include Board chair Gerry Connolly and Providence District Supervisor Joan DuBois.

Merni Fitzgerald, former vice mayor of the City of Falls Church and eight-year Council member here, told the News-Press in her current capacity as chief public information officer for Fairfax County that Adair operates like an “inspector general.”

He has the freedom to launch any investigation of his own that he wishes, she said, and also serves at the pleasure of the County board’s Audit Committee. Private citizen members of that committee are Sean Coleman and Michael Hershman.

Fitzgerald said that the general public is encouraged to “tip off” Adair’s office to matters, as well, and can do so anonymously if necessary. Adair’s office phone number is (703) 324-4005.

Mayor Gardner said she is pursuing the Audit Committee route in the county not only because Connolly is a political ally on most matters, but because she was rebuffed by Commonwealth Attorney Horan’s office.

“I was told that Mr. Horan does not speak to politicians,” Gardner said. Apparently he is not speaking to much of anyone lately, according to the Washington Post. The Post reported last Friday, the day after the Cornejo verdict story appeared in the News-Press, that Horan’s office would not return its calls. That was after Horan spoke to the News-Press last Wednesday, and the News-Press banner headline story followed last Thursday.

Meanwhile, the News-Press has learned that the Cornejo family may not be done with its own pursuit of legal justice. While few expect that Gotwalt has the personal resources to pay the near-$2 million judgment against him, last week’s verdict confirming a “wrongful death” in the case could open options for the family to bring new legal action against county officials.