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Fairfax County’s apparent coddling of a killer has become an election issue.

Patrick McDade, running as a Republican in the race for Robert Horan‘s commonwealth’s attorney seat, has demanded Democratic opponent Raymond Morrogh, Horan’s chief deputy since 1988, come clean about the prosecutorial decisions made by county officials in the Steve Cornejo killing.

“If you’re going to be dealing with the public as a public official, one of the responsibilites you have is to explain charging decisions to the public,” says McDade.

Cornejo was unarmed when he was beaten and shot in the back by a stranger named Brandon Paul Gotwalt in the courtyard of a Fair Oaks apartment complex in June 2005.

Gotwalt was never arrested in the killing, and even before the corpse was cold Horan began mounting a very public and ultimately bogus defense of the shooter, telling local media that Gotwalt was only being a good Samaritan who had prevented a drunk Cornejo from beating a woman, and that Gotwalt only used the gun in self-defense. Horan, known as a hardball law-and-order man in his several decades in power, took the odd (for him) step of not making any recommendation to indict when the case was presented to a grand jury. No witnesss to the killing testified before the grand jury, and no indictment was returned.

Horan’s failure to prosecute Gotwalt has looked almost criminal ever since Cornejo’s survivors sued Gotwalt for wrongful death in Fairfax County civil court. The plaintiffs won a verdict against Gotwalt of $1.96 million for the killing, plus $15,588 for funeral expenses.

Testimony in the civil case was devastating. Though Horan had insisted to Cornejo’s family members that nobody had seen the killing, two men in separate apartments heard Cornejo yelling, “Why are you trying to take my life?” as Gotwalt beat him in the head with the .38 caliber pistol, just before shooting him in the back. Evidence at the civil trial showed that there was no basis in fact to Horan’s version of Gotwalt as Good Samaritan: There was no woman being assaulted when Gotwalt encountered Cornejo. There wasn’t even a woman on the scene.

And there’s more to damn both Horan and Gotwalt: At trial, it came out that Gotwalt had been out drinking the night of the attack, and, as Cornejo lay dying and police began investigating the shooting, Gotwalt was just above the courtyard in his apartment, busy destroying evidence. Gotwalt ripped his bloody shirt into pieces and flushed it down the toilet. He got his girlfriend, the owner of the murder weapon, to wash his other bloody clothes. He hid unspent shells from the gun in her jewelry box and flushed the spent shell casing. He also lied to police when they came knocking on his door looking for clues. His involvement came to light only when he returned to the scene to retrieve his glasses. Police never arrested him.

After the civil trial verdict came in, anecdotal evidence began coming out about Gotwalt being a bizarre and dangerous figure. One blogger said he had personally heard Gotwalt brag about the killing in the midst of committing another physical assault at a party. A poster
on washingtonpost.com told of being the victim of a drunken Gotwalt assault.

After the trial, Horan told me his office would take another look at the Cornejo case. But he retired without ever commenting on the investigation again. McDade says he, like pretty much everybody else outside the county police department and Horan’s office, has not had access to the Cornejo files. Morrogh, however, has had that access. So while he’s not yet demanding a prosecution of Gotwalt, McDade feels justified in requesting that Morrogh, being so close to Horan throughout the investigation, give the voters an explanation of the prosecutor’s conduct.

“There’s obviously been ample time since the jury returned an extremely large verdict for Fairfax County,” says McDade. “I think it’s inappropriate at this point and time that they are still refusing to make any sort of public comment,even though both community leaders and the public are seeking an answer.”