In a formal communiqué to City of Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner earlier this month, Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney Raymond Morrogh said he’d determined that the Fairfax grand jury and his office had “acted appropriately in declining to indict” the man who shot and killed former Falls Church resident Jack Stephen “Steve” Cornejo in June 2005.
Morrogh was an assistant in the office at the time of the killing and was elected to the Commonwealth Attorney post last November. He’d promised Mayor Gardner he’d review the case.
Cornejo was killed by a single gunshot through his upper back in an early-morning altercation with a neighbor, Brandon Paul Gotwalt, to an apartment where Cornejo was attending a party.
In his three-page letter, Morrogh defended the Fairfax police investigation into the shooting, recounting details provided by witnesses at the scene, and the grand jury decision not to indict Gotwalt. Morrogh did not explain why his office refused to disclose Gotwalt’s identity until it was subpoenaed almost two years later.
Morrogh said in the letter that he also reviewed the testimony at a civil trial brought by an attorney representing Cornejo’s family in March 2007. There, Gottwalt’s identity was made public for the first time and after two days of testimony, a jury found him culpable for a “wrongful death” and awarded the Cornejo family $2 million in damages.
“The results at the civil trial add nothing which would support a criminal prosecution,” Morrogh wrote, noting “the burden of proof in a civil case is much lower than that which applies to a criminal case.”
Moreover, he added, “Witnesses in the civil case gave testimony inconsistent with interviews they gave to police in 2005, shortly after the shooting.”
According to Morrogh, police witness accounts reported at the time indicated that Gotwalt intervened to break up a fight between Cornejo and his ex-girlfriend on the breezeway outside the apartment where the party occurred, and that Cornejo then turned his anger on Gotwalt. An altercation resulted where the pistol Gotwalt was carrying went off, killing Cornejo, according to the police.
Witness accounts presented at the civil trial indicated that the ex-girlfriend was not at the scene at the time and that Gotwalt was the aggressor, wrestling Cornejo to a kneeling position below him, and firing the gun into Cornejo’s back, killing him. The civil trial included testimony of an eyewitness who said he’d not been interviewed by police at the time of the shooting, but Morrogh said he had been.
That witness, Morrogh said, changed his testimony between the time of the incident and the civil trial. When he was interviewed by Fairfax Police following the civil trial about his changed testimony, the witness “failed to give any reasonable explanation for this change in his testimony,” Morrogh wrote.
Falls Church Mayor Gardner had expressed keen interest in the case from the beginning, but found she could obtain no explanations from then Commonwealth Attorney Robert Horan about the failure to indict Gotwalt.
Only after persistent efforts during Morrogh’s campaign to become the new Commonwealth Attorney last fall, did Gardner succeed in eliciting a promise from Morrogh to conduct a review.
In a statement issued to the News-Press yesterday, Mayor Gardner said, “Although I appreciate Mr. Morrogh’s response to my inquiry, I had asked that he contact the Cornejos directly. This has not happened. I will continue to pursue more comprehensive answers on behalf of the Cornejos because I believe they need to know that their questions and concerns regarding the death of their family member (and a beloved member of our Falls Church community) have been addressed to the fullest extent possible. I do not believe that has happened yet.”
Cornejo was a popular 2001 graduate of George Mason High School in Falls Church, and was the co-captain of its state championship boys’ soccer team. He had extensive ties to family and friends in Falls Church.
Earlier this year, a Fairfax court upheld a bankruptcy filing by Gotwalt, absolving him of any liability for fulfilling the civil court judgment against him.