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Despite pledges, Fairfax County officials still haven’t explained why they let Brandon Paul Gotwalt get away with beating and shooting unarmed Steve Cornejo in the Gotwalt was never arrested or charged with any crime related to the killing, which occurred in the courtyard of an apartment complex in Fair Oaks in June 2005. Cornejo’s survivors had to file a civil suit just to get the authorities to give them the killer’s name.
Former Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan, contrary to his normal routine, presented the case to a grand jury with no recommendation to indict — the Washington Post said Horan had only done that three times in his four decades in office. After the killing, Horan told the public that Gotwalt was saving a woman in distress when he confronted Cornejo, and fired his gun only in self defense.
But at trial for that civil suit, Cornejo’s lawyer produced two witnesses who testified they heard Cornejo plead for his life as Gotwalt hit him in the head with a gun and then shot him in the back. As for Horan’s Good Samaritan tale: There was no woman on the scene during the killing. Gotwalt admitted on the stand to being the aggressor in his confrontation with Cornejo. And testimony showed that after the shooting Gotwalt had ripped up and disposed of his bloody clothing and flushed it and spent shell casings down the toilet.
Before and after the civil trial, the Cornejo family’s attorney told me that Fairfax County had thwarted his investigation into the killing from the start, and that he had never seen public servants — from any county — protect a killer to the degree he felt Gotwalt, a U.S. Navy veteran who at the time was working for an intelligence contractor, was being protected by Fairfax County police and prosecutors.
Even so, a jury found Gotwalt liable for the wrongful death of Cornejo, and ordered Gotwalt to pay Cornejo’s family $1.96 million plus $15,588 for funeral expenses.
After the civil trial, Robin Gardner, the mayor of Falls Church, where Cornejo grew up, demanded that county officials explain to the public why, based on testimony presented in an open court, they were letting Gotwalt get away with murder.
And during the last election season, it seemed like Gardner would get her answers. Ray Morrogh, a longtime Horan assistant, agreed that if he won Horan’s old job he would revisit the case and disclose his findings to the family and the public. Morrogh did in fact win in November, and after the election sent Gardner a letter claiming he would honor his campaign pledge, and would invite her to a meeting with the Cornejo family when he’d finished reviewing the Gotwalt file.
“I have heard nothing since that time,” Gardner told me last week.