The father of the slain Steve Cornejo told the News-Press yesterday that he was disappointed, but not surprised to learn that Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Raymond Morrogh wrote to Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner this month that he would take no further action to bring Cornejo’s killer to justice.
“He killed my son, he was found culpable by a jury, and he walks the streets a free man,” Austin Cornejo said about Brandon Paul Gottwalt, who Fairfax authorities said killed Steve Cornejo, 24, in self-defense during an altercation in June 2005.
This was despite the fact that a jury in a civil trial found Gottwalt responsible for Cornejo’s “wrongful death” in March 2007, and awarded the Cornejo family $2 million damages, which it will never collect. The coroner’s report confirmed that Gottwalt shot Cornejo in the back from a close distance with a .38 revolver.
Jack Stephen “Steve” Cornejo was, as his father recalled, “extremely popular” with “a lot of friends” in the City of Falls Church. He was co-captain of George Mason High School’s state championship boys soccer team in May 2000.
He led members of the triumphant state championship team, most still in their uniforms, into the Tysons Corner hotel ballroom where the school prom was underway that Saturday night. Weeks later, he graduated from the school.
Mayor Gardner, who was on the Falls Church City Council when the killing occurred, took a strong interest in the case, trying to help the Cornejo family get answers out of the Fairfax authorities. She and her husband, former Falls Church Democratic Committee chair Mike Gardner, pressured Morrogh during his election campaign last fall to review the case, which he finally agreed to do, resulting in his letter this month.
After high school, Steve Cornejo maintained strong ties to a wide network of friends in Falls Church as he took jobs in next-door Fairfax County, where he lost his life to a gunshot about 4:30 a.m. on a May 2005 Saturday morning, after a party in an apartment complex he was visiting.
Morrogh worked as an assistant commonwealth attorney in the office of Commonwealth Attorney Robert Horan that would not prosecute Gottwalt at the time. Police arrived at the scene of the killing to take reports from witnesses.
But Austin Cornejo recalls the lack of cooperation and information he, his sister and other family members received from the police and the commonwealth attorney’s office. Rather than showing compassion and a willingness to help the family resolve the issues in their time of personal crisis and mourning, they were cold and indifferent, unwilling to disclose any information, Cornejo said.
That included an unwillingness of the commonwealth attorney’s office to even disclose the name of Steve Cornejo’s killer.
It wasn’t until the Cornejo family appealed to a Falls Church attorney, who in turn found a partner in her firm willing to take the case on a pro bono basis, that Gotwalt’s name was grudgingly revealed in response to a court order.
Attorney Malik Cutlar filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of the Cornejo family, and in a dramatic outcome, the jury found Gottwalt guilty of the “wrongful death” of Steve Cornejo, tacking on a stiff $2 million civil penalty to underscore their point, far more than the $300,000 requested by the family.
A key to the case was the testimony of Giuseppe Amadeo, an eyewitness who saw through his apartment window about 10 feet from where he claimed Gottwalt wrestled Cornejo to his knees, pressing him from behind. He said he saw Gottwalt produce a gun and hit Cornejo on the head with it. He then heard someone say, “Why are you trying to take my life?”
The gunman, according to the witness, suddenly stood up behind Cornejo and shot him from behind. The coroner’s report confirmed that the bullet entered Cornejo from the upper back, and that there were bruises on Cornejo’s head.
But according to Morrogh, in his letter to Mayor Gardner this month, the official police report concurred with what Gottwalt said on the witness stand in the civil trial.
Gottwalt said that when he heard an altercation on the breezeway of the apartment complex, he took his gun and went out of his apartment to intervene. He saw Cornejo and his ex-girlfriend fighting and when he tried to break it up, Cornejo turned on him and began attacking him. The gun then went off accidentally, he said.
Others, however, testified by Cornejo’s ex-girlfriend was not at the scene.
Morrogh also said in his letter that the key witness, Amadeo, had been interviewed by the police at the scene, and “had a very different account” of the events from what he said on the stand at the civil trial.
But Austin Cornejo said that the police never revealed having interviewed Amadeo at the scene. “They didn’t include him in their report,” he noted.
While Morrogh said that Gottwalt, who worked for a security firm at the time, was acting as a “Good Samaritan,” to Austin Cornejo, it was a case of someone “who took the law into his own hands.”
“He was the aggressor, he started the fight over something he wasn’t supposed to be involved in,” Cornejo said of Gottwalt. “He’s a killer, found guilty by a jury, and he is walking free. We don’t know the reason he was protected. We need to know why. Those who knew and liked Steve want to know.”