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Last week, local TV newscasts and radio talk shows broadcast interviews with the family of Sal Culosi. He’s the alleged sports bookie who was allegedly accidentally killed outside his Fair Oaks home on Jan. 24 by a Fairfax County police officer. The alleged accidental killer not only wasn’t arrested for shooting an unarmed man, but his name was never even released by the police. Two months after the allegedly accidental killing, the shooter’s name was reported as Officer Deval Bullock. The Culosi family railed into the microphones against the cops for the way they’ve protected one of their own.
Corina Menjivar says that she followed the Culosi case closely and can feel that family’s pain. Her family has been going through much the same thing, save the spotlight. Her nephew, Steve Cornejo, was killed nine months ago while leaving a party, also in Fair Oaks.
Cornejo, 23, was unarmed and, according to the coroner’s report, was shot in the back. His killer was never arrested or even detained by Fairfax County police; he was questioned but claimed—in differing stories—that he fired accidentally or in self-defense. A grand jury did not return an indictment against the shooter.
His name has never been disclosed, even to the victim’s family.
All these months later, Cornejo’s survivors still don’t know who killed the kid, who captained the George Mason High School soccer team to its first state championship in 2000. But, if only because of the way the case has been handled, the survivors do have a theory about what the killer does for a living.
“We think it’s a policeman,” Menjivar says. “He’s some type of law enforcement.”
Family members aren’t the only ones who feel this way.
“He’s gotta be related to the cops,” says Kat Arias, a former classmate of Cornejo’s. “The way they’re protecting him, we all think that’s what it is. We’ve all done everything we can to find information on this—to draw attention to what happened—but we can’t find out anything. Why are they trying so hard to protect this guy?”
Frank Spinello, who coached Cornejo at George Mason, has a similar theory.
“I think probably the shooter—he has something to do with the police or the government, or he’s ex-military,” says Spinello.
The theorists all admit they’re working only on hunches and a wholesale mistrust of the police and say that even if they’re wrong on that count, the police’s handling of the Cornejo investigation has been unfair to a degree that encourages mistrust. But if folks now suspect the cops whenever a perpetrator gets favorable treatment, the county has only itself to blame.
Robert F. Horan has been the commonwealth’s attorney in the county since 1967, and, as has been brought up often since the Culosi killing, he has never prosecuted a policeman for a wrongful shooting in all his years of calling the shots. And Horan is the same guy who wanted citizens to believe that Carlton Jones, an undercover Prince George’s County police officer, was acting in self-defense when he fired 18 shots at unarmed student Prince Jones (no relation) in a Falls Church driveway in 2000, hitting him in the back with five bullets. Five days before Culosi was gunned down, a civil jury ruled that Carlton Jones should pay Prince Jones’ survivors $3.7 million.
And in Reston on Jan. 30, the same week Culosi was gunned down, a cabdriver was shot while standing in the street after dropping off a fare. According to news reports, the bullet came from a house owned by a U.S. Capitol Police officer. Fairfax County police have not released the name of the shooter and don’t intend to. Officer Shelley Broderick, a spokesperson for the Fairfax County department, says the shooter’s name remains a secret because the department’s investigators determined that the shooting was caused by “unintentional discharge”—the same finding the department had when one of their own killed Culosi.
There are similarities between the Culosi and Cornejo cases beyond the neighborhood where the killings took place and the government’s stinginess with information.
In both situations, the police put a lot of effort into demonizing the dead. While Culosi’s body was still warm, his killer’s bosses talked about how much gambling money Culosi had taken in during the botched sting operation. They also released statements that asserted the victim had a “cocainelike” substance in his possession at the time of his murder, as if that had contributed to his allegedly accidental killing.
After the death of Cornejo, whose family immigrated from El Salvador, Horan told the Washington Post that the victim was “very, very drunk” and that just prior to being shot in the back, he had assaulted a woman from the party and then attacked the killer.
If any sobriety test was administered to the killer by Fairfax County police, its results have not been released. Horan did not return phone calls for this story.
The only witnesses to the killing, police told Cornejo’s family, were the killer and his victim. Days after the shooting, Fairfax County police asked for anybody with information on the case to contact the department. Those on Cornejo’s side, however, say that from the start, police have been as uninterested in getting information about the case as they are in giving out information about it.
“The police asked me if Steve had gang ties,” says Spinello, “for whatever that had to do with this. He was already dead. Steve was the most accommodating, warm, friendly person you could imagine. He was the first person I met when I started coaching at George Mason, and he made me feel at home the moment I met him, and I stayed in touch with him after graduation and until he was killed, and I’d never known him to be involved with anything illegal or immoral.
“The police portrayed the person that shot him almost herolike, whereas Steve, who was unarmed when he was killed—they passed him off as a hoodlum, just because he was Hispanic. If his family was affluent, they wouldn’t be able to get away with showing him and his family so little respect. I called Horan after Steve was killed and told him what I knew of his character and his leadership abilities as a soccer captain and a person, but he wasn’t forthcoming with me at all. He gave me the impression that he could care less what I thought about anything. It sounded like he’d already taken sides.”
Cornejo’s friends held a party last year at a downtown club to raise money to pursue an investigation into his killing. Cornejo’s family has retained attorney Malik Cutlar to try to compel the county to release information about the case. Cutlar says that he’s been very surprised by the level of protection Cornejo’s killer has been afforded—and the amount of secrecy still surrounding the shooting after so many months.
Through phone calls and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Cutlar and his clients have tried without success to find out what the police know about Cornejo’s killing. The most important step is finding out the identity of the killer. According to Cutlar, the county has to date provided three explanations for not providing a name.
“Last year, in response to a FOIA request from the family, the police said the case was still under investigation, so they couldn’t give out anything,” says Cutlar. “Then, last September, after another FOIA request, the county said that there was no current investigation but that they couldn’t provide the information the family was seeking because it was ‘of a personal nature that could put the person’s safety at issue,’ and they cited a portion of the FOIA law pertaining to ‘a noncriminal incident.’
“So I rewrote the FOIA request, broadened it, and in a letter [from Fairfax County police] dated March 15, 2006, I’m told that they can’t identify the shooter because ‘the case remains a criminal incident.’ That’s where we stand, but we’re not going to stop here. We’re not going to just deal with the police.”
Cutlar knows that the family thinks law enforcement had a hand in Cornejo’s killing. And, although the only evidence to support that belief is the lack of evidence to refute it, he’s not surprised by the level of mistrust the survivors have for the cops.
“Everybody I’ve spoken to about this, from fellow attorneys on down, seems to think that’s what’s going on,” says Cutlar. “It’s pure speculation, but that’s what they think.”
Horan says he’s not aware of any public perception that cops can get away with shooting people in Fairfax County. He says the lack of an indictment in the Culosi case, and the lack of any prosecution of a policeman for a wrongful shooting on his résumé, shouldn’t foster any such feelings.
“Every prosecutor has a moral and ethical obligation not to charge people with crimes if you can’t move forward with it,” he says. “I have not had a police officer who committed a criminal shooting.”
He vehemently denies that Cornejo’s killer had any law enforcement ties.
“None whatsoever,” he says. “If people think that he had any connection to the Fairfax police, I would think that the [Cornejo] family put that out there. But it’s simply not true.”
Asked about the lack of public disclosure of the shooter’s identity and most other information about the Cornejo case, which he described as “finished” in criminal terms, Horan says releasing information is not the commonwealth’s attorney’s call.
“That’s a policy call by the police,” he says.
Spinello says the Cornejo case has changed him and others close to his former player.
“Since this happened, I don’t have much faith in the legal system anymore,” he says. “That makes me sad. I feel like the family, like Steve, really got the short end. They have no faith at all now—not in the legal system, not in the justice system.”
But, says Menjivar, her family is leaning on another kind of faith.
“My nephew was shot in the back when he was unarmed, and then these people lie to us or won’t tell us anything,” she says, her voice quaking with sadness and rage. “But we have our faith in God, and he is on our side. And one day, he’s just going to unleash on these people.”—Dave McKenna