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Like a lot of folks who knew Steve Cornejo, Frank Spinello spent much of last week in a Fairfax County courtroom to support his dead friend and maybe have his faith in the American legal system restored. There was some progress in the latter.
But, Spinello says, “There’s still a long way to go before there’s justice here.”
Spinello is a longtime soccer coach at George Mason High School in Falls Church. Cornejo, a 2000 graduate who had captained the Mustangs to a state championship, ranked as one of Spinello’s all-time favorites. The player-coach relationship was still strong in June 2005, when Cornejo was beaten, shot in the back, and left for dead in the courtyard of a Fairfax County apartment complex by a stranger named Brandon Paul Gotwalt.
Two residents of the complex heard Cornejo pleading—“Why are you trying to take my life?” he yelled—as Gotwalt pounded him in the head with the butt of the .38-caliber pistol; they also saw Gotwalt shoot the victim from behind and run away. Gotwalt, who had been out drinking the night of the attack, hid in his apartment overlooking the courtyard for two hours afterward and, as Cornejo drowned in his own blood, began destroying evidence of what he’d done.
Gotwalt tore his shirt, soaked with Cornejo’s blood, into small pieces and flushed it down the toilet. He had his girlfriend wash his other bloodstained clothing. He flushed the spent shell casing down the toilet and removed the unfired rounds from the gun he’d just fired, which belonged to his girlfriend, and hid them in her jewelry box. When police first knocked on his door and asked if he had any information about the dead body, Gotwalt told them no.
These were a few of the details that came out during testimony in Cornejo v. Gotwalt, a civil case that occupied a Fairfax County Circuit Courtroom for three days. On Wednesday afternoon, a seven-person jury came back with a unanimous verdict that held Gotwalt liable for the wrongful death of Cornejo. Gotwalt was ordered to pay Cornejo’s father, Austin Cornejo, $1.96 million for the killing, plus $15,588 to cover funeral costs.
Gotwalt was never subject to a criminal proceeding. He was never even arrested. Fairfax County police refused to even tell Cornejo’s family or attorneys the name of the killer until nearly a year after the shooting, despite several pleas and Freedom of Information Act requests. Police also refused to turn over information about the case from their initial investigation.
The police and Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan would only tell Cornejo’s family that the dead guy was killed by a good Samaritan who caught him beating a woman and that the Samaritan was badly beaten by the man he shot. Horan repeated that scenario to the media following the shooting. But at trial, the plaintiff’s side put the allegedly beaten woman on the stand, and she testified she was never assaulted by Cornejo. That testimony was supported by photographs of the woman taken shortly after Cornejo’s killing. Witnesses testified there was no female present when Gotwalt confronted and killed Cornejo and that Gotwalt had the upper hand throughout the brawl. Photos shown to jurors showed that Gotwalt’s injuries were limited to a few superficial scratches on his neck. Testimony at the trial about Gotwalt’s behavior after the killing—shredding and flushing evidence, never calling 911, lying about his involvement—destroyed the good Samaritan pose.
When Spinello asked for information about the case, investigators tried to get him to say that Cornejo, who grew up in Falls Church in a Salvadoran family, had gang ties.
“They just told lies about my nephew,” says Corinna Menjivar, Cornejo’s aunt. “Only us and God knew the truth.”
Two attorneys hired by the family to look into the matter gave up because of the police’s stonewalling tactics.
Horan told me last year that the nondisclosure of the killer’s name was a “policy call by the police.” Only after the filing of the civil suit—which, because of the police department’s nondisclosure policies, named “John Doe” as the original defendant—was Gotwalt’s name released. Gotwalt’s chief witness at the trial was Detective Chester Toney of the Fairfax County Police Department—the man who presented the case to a grand jury and failed to get an indictment.
“As a citizen, this was all very troubling. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Malik Cutlar, the Arlington attorney who finally took the Cornejos’ case and broke through the wall of silence. “It seemed obvious from the start to me, there had to be at least an obstruction charge. You or I can’t destroy your shirt, flush the shell, lie to police, hide ammo in a jewelry box, lie to police some more—you or I couldn’t do all those things and get away with it. To have the lead police investigator in the case as the expert witness, that struck me as very odd, too. I still have no clue how he got away with it. I don’t get it.”
The protections being afforded the killer of an unarmed man led Spinello, in an interview conducted last year before the release of Gotwalt’s name, to surmise that the shooter had “something to do with the police, or he’s ex-military, or government” (“Connecting the Shots,” Cheap Seats, 3/31/2006). He went to the authorities with that premise and was told his intuition was way off.
“I asked Robert Horan straight up if [the killer] was ex-military or law enforcement,” says Spinello. “He told me no way.”
In depositions, Gotwalt refused to say what he did for a living, claiming there were reasons of national security that prevented him from revealing that information. During the trial, it was disclosed that Gotwalt, 28, is a former air-warfare specialist with the U.S. Navy and now works as an engineer at Argon ST, a Fairfax-based naval contractor.
Cutlar says as soon as any appeals by Gotwalt’s side are exhausted, he will start collection procedures, which will likely include garnishing the defendant’s wages.
Since he wasn’t ever indicted, Gotwalt is still eligible for murder charges. Cutlar says the civil verdict indicates that a criminal conviction is possible.
“Virginia, like D.C., is a ‘contributory negligence’ jurisdiction,” he says. “That is a very difficult standard to overcome as plaintiff’s counsel. In other words, the jury had to be convinced that Steven did not contribute to his own death and that the death did not occur in self-defense. Even a 1 percent ‘contribution’ to your own injury will bar a recovery. This is important, because I was able to convince a jury of Gotwalt’s liability, and I am in no way a prosecutor. Therefore, perhaps the evidence is enough for the prosecutor’s office to take a second look at prosecuting the shooter.”
Horan now says that because of the civil trial, he has “asked the police to take another look” at the case, but he defends the decision not to prosecute Gotwalt given the evidence he was presented from Toney’s investigation.
“You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers,” Horan says. “This story as originally told was the story of a good Samaritan, and there was no evidence to the contrary.”
Given what they’ve witnessed from Fairfax County authorities so far, Cornejo’s survivors aren’t expecting the wheels of justice to start turning for them.
“I’m not holding my breath [for an indictment],” Spinello says.
Reached by phone in his Fairfax office, Gotwalt’s attorney, John A. Keats, says the verdict was the work of a “runaway jury.”
“There wasn’t any way to justify what they did,” says Keats. “The amount of the verdict, they grabbed a number out of the air. [Austin Cornejo] was a man who hadn’t been living with [Steve Cornejo] and saw him every couple weeks. [Gotwalt] was trying to defend himself at the time. The type of shot that he had in the gun, it was rat shot. Do you know what that is? Tiny little pellets used to shoot snakes and rats. He had another gun at home that was a .357 magnum. He could have used that. He chose to use the gun with rat shot, because it’s not lethal.”
Asked why he’d describe a gun that killed a man as “not lethal,” Keats says he doesn’t like the tone of the question and hangs up.