Going into next Tuesday’s Virginia statewide elections, both candidates running to fill the shoes of retiring Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Robert Horan have said publicly that they will revisit a criminal investigation into the June 2005 shooting death of Falls Church city native Jack Stephen “Steve” Cornejo.
Under direct pressure from Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner, both Republican Patrick McDade and Democrat Ray Morrogh have said that, if elected, they will order a fresh review of the case, which has resulted in no criminal charges to date against the confessed shooter of the popular 23-year-old Cornejo.
But Morrogh’s verbal promise comes in stark contrast to the fact that he’s been a chief deputy to Horan during his office’s stonewalling of the Cornejo case for over two years, and unlike anyone outside that office has had access to the case file the entire time.
A civil court jury judgment last March found Cornejo’s killer, Brandon Paul Gotwalt, responsible for the “wrongful death” of Cornejo. Gotwalt, an employee of a security firm that has government contracts, was found liable for almost $2 million in damages in the death of Cornejo. But nothing has been done under the watch of Horan’s office to review the new evidence presented in the civil trial.
That evidence included an eye witness account of the shooting that was not included in the Fairfax Police investigator’s report to Horan or to a grand jury in 2005. It also included statements on the witness stand by Gotwalt, himself, which contradicted what he’d told investigators in 2005 by admitting he started the fight.
Only a face-to-face confrontation by Mayor Gardner with Maurer at a Democratic fundraiser in Alexandria last month caused Morrogh to verbally agree to a fresh look at the case. He’s been a key player in Horan’s office, which has stonewalled the Cornejo case for over two years and had denounced his opponent last month for raising the Cornejo case in the course of a candidate’s debate.
Six members of Cornejo’s extended family met with Mayor Gardner at Anthony’s Restaurant last Saturday to reiterate key points in the case. At one time, over 40 members of Cornejo’s family lived in the City of Falls Church.
They have not received a dime from the court’s verdict last March, as Gotwalt has filed for personal bankruptcy.
Cornejo was the co-captain of the George Mason High School state champion soccer team in 2000, and very popular with his classmates.
The family, led by Steve’s aunt Corina Menjivar and father Austin Cornejo, shed more light on how they were treated by investigators in the immediate aftermath of Cornejo’s death in 2005.
Their story was one of facing intimidation and stonewalling. They were told to “get a lawyer, get two lawyers,” they were told. No member of the family was permitted to see Cornejo’s body prior to the funeral.
Horan’s office never returned a single call, nor would it release the name of the killer, even when licensed investigators retained by the Cornejo family requested it. It was not until March 2006 when an attorney, taking the case pro bono, filed a “John Doe” lawsuit against the killer that his name was revealed.
When the family showed up for the grand jury consideration of the Cornejo case, it was given wrong information about its location and missed the proceeding. Horan did not go before the grand jury, but left it to the chief investigator in the case who took the killer’s side of the story.
The investigator tarnished the reputation of Cornejo, family members said, accepting the testimony of the killer, who said he jumped in with his gun because Cornejo was “beating a girl to death.”
“There was no record of the girl going to the hospital,” a family member said, adding that the girl came forward later to say she was not being beaten, at all, testifying in the civil case.
One family member said he saw the chief Fairfax investigator talking and laughing with the killer and his girlfriend during the civil trial.
This week, in an article published in the City Paper entitled, “A Murderer Among Us?,” Dave McKenna wrote that after the civil verdict against Gotwalt last March, “anecdotal evidence began coming out about (the shooter) being a bizarre and dangerous figure. One blogger said he had personally heard (the shooter) brag about the killing in the midst of committing another physical assault at a party. A poster on washingtonpost.com told of being the victim of a drunken assault (by the shooter).”