The killer’s name is Brandon Paul Gotwalt.
A civil suit filed by the family of Steve Cornejo against Gotwalt, who beat and shot Cornejo in the back in June 2005 in the courtyard of a Fair Oaks apartment complex, goes to trial next week in Fairfax County. Cornejo, who grew up in Falls Church in a family from El Salvador, was unarmed when he was killed.
In the months following the killing, Fairfax County police refused to tell the dead man’s family or the media who killed Cornejo or provide any information about the killer, who was never arrested or charged with any crime related to the death. It took about a year for Cornejo’s family to learn the killer’s name. A Fairfax County grand jury declined to bring charges against Gotwalt. State’s attorney Robert F. Horan, a law-and-order man and popular presence in the county for more than three decades, declined to prosecute, and put the case to a grand jury without recommendation. Horan also refused to publicly identify Gotwalt as the killer. The grand jury did not return an indictment.
The civil suit alleges Gotwalt is liable for Cornejo’s wrongful death. Cornejo’s side says evidence will show Gotwalt initially told investigators he didn’t know anything about the killing, then later admitted not only that he was the shooter but that he’d cut up the shirt he was wearing in the act and flushed it, along with the spent cartridge for the bullet that killed Cornejo, down his toilet.
The seemingly preferential treatment Gotwalt received from police following the killing led Cornejo’s former soccer coach—-the dead man had captained George Mason High School to its first state championship in 2000—-to believe the killer must have “something to do with the police, or he’s ex-military, or government.” Other friends and family suggested similar scenarios. Even on the eve of the trial, the plaintiffs say they still don’t know what Gotwalt does for a living. “We asked him in the deposition what his job is,” says Corina Menjivar, Cornejo’s aunt, “and he said he couldn’t tell us. The police are still protecting him.”