With the media narrative of the Trayvon Martin shooting falling apart in what appears to be malfeasance by big-network news staff, some people are starting to wonder just how many times the public has been mislead like this. While I can’t answer that question, I can tell you that one such case did occur here in Northern Virginia just a few years ago. It may not have been as big a story, but it certainly had many of the same ingredients that we see in the current story recipe.
When Brandon Gotwalt was awakened at 4:30am to the screams of a woman crying for help, this Iraq-war veteran tried to do the right thing. What resulted was the death of another young man and Gotwalt enduring years of local media slandering his character, politicians promising to prosecute him in campaign speeches, witnesses fabricating testimony against him, and the loss of all his wealth to bankruptcy.
In the July 6, 2005 issue of the Falls Church News-Press, it was reported that local high-school graduate Steve Cornejo had been shot in the back while unarmed in the morning hours of June 25 in an apartment complex in the Fair Oaks area while attending a party. The news article quoted “unofficial reports” that said the assailant had left the party and come back with a gun when the shooting occurred.
For the next two months, the Falls Church News-Press would run news articles, editorials, and letters to the editor over the shooting. In each, a narrative was setup that Cornejo was a local high school graduate who had led his soccer team to the state championship his graduating year, and that he was unarmed when shot in the back. The News-Press attempted to whip up racial motivations for the shooting in a July 13 editorial, “Steve Cornejo’s family hails from El Salvador. The assailant is reportedly Caucasian. We would hate to think that any of this has anything to do with anything, but we’re not naïve”, and in an August 3 printing of a letter-to-the-editor, “Or are they assuming that because they are Latinos, no one will notice?”
And in a News-Press news article (not opinion piece) on August 17, there was speculation from “[k]nowledgeable observers  that known facts about the case indicate the killer might have been an off-duty law enforcement officer, or a person in a related security profession.” And after pointing out that Cornejo had been accidentally shot in the back during a fight, the same news article speculated that the shooter intended to shoot because otherwise the guns safety would have prevented the discharge (it was later learned that the gun Gotwalt had was a .38 revolver).
Though the Falls Church News-Press continued to “report” on the case with somewhat laughable speculation, seasoned Commonwealth Attorney Robert F. Horan, Jr. sent the case to a 7 member Grand Jury in mid-July 2005 which found no basis to charge Brandon Gotwalt, whose name would remain undisclosed to the public.
So what really happened? That wouldn’t be fully reported until July 31, 2008, when the Washington Post reported that Falls Church City Mayor Robin Gardner had demanded a status report on the prosecution of Brandon Gotwalt and Commonwealth Attorney Morrogh responded with a detailed 3 page letter:
Morrogh's three-page letter delves into the episode in detail. He noted that Steve Cornejo and his ex-girlfriend had been drinking at a bar in Maryland, then drove to a party in Fair Oaks. Cornejo's blood-alcohol level was later measured at .20, more than twice the legal definition of intoxicated, Morrogh wrote. The ex-girlfriend told police she was so drunk she barely recalled the evening.
About 4:30 a.m. June 25, Morrogh wrote, Cornejo attacked the ex-girlfriend in a breezeway outside the apartment party. Her screams awoke several people in other apartments, including Gotwalt. Gotwalt told his girlfriend to call 911, then went outside with a .38-caliber revolver loaded with small "snake shot" pellets designed for hunting small animals, Morrogh wrote.
Gotwalt encountered the woman, Cornejo and another man and asked whether the woman was all right. The woman and the other man left without seeing Gotwalt show a weapon. Morrogh said that Cornejo then berated and pursued Gotwalt to the back of the building, then attacked Gotwalt.
While the two men wrestled on the ground, witnesses said, the gun discharged at close range into Cornejo's back.So while Cornejo had been unarmed, the truth was that he pursued Gotwalt attacking him from behind sending both men over a small hedge. As the two wrestled on the ground, Cornejo got the upper hand most likely due to Gotwalt’s smaller stature and got on top. Gotwalt then attempted to use the gun to beat Cornejo, but that’s when it went off killing Cornejo.
That wasn’t the only revelation. Cornejo’s reputation that had previously been painted as a local athletic hero and inspiration to future students was not how he was known to the police:
He said police found that Cornejo had a "propensity towards violence when intoxicated," including five or six prior incidents that would have been admissible in a criminal trial.Cornejo had a record.
Despite all of this, Cornejo’s father won a successful civil lawsuit against Gotwalt in March 2007 for nearly $2 million. Not only did the law suit cause Gotwalt’s bankruptcy, but it started anew public outcries for his arrest and prosecution. This time it was not only the Falls Church News-Press, but the Washington City Paper, the progressive blog Raising Kaine, and most of all former local Democratic party operative and husband of the city’s mayor, Michael Gardner.
Michael Gardner’s agitation for a criminal trial was so intense it created divisions in the local Democrat party, causing the fervently liberal Falls Church News-Press to endorse a Republican for Commonwealth Attorney over the case. Gardner even withdrew support for Gerry Connolly, then the Chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and running for his first term in Congress.
Prosecuting Gotwalt became a campaign debating point between Democrat Raymond F. Morrogh, a long time attorney in the office and right hand to outgoing CA Horan, and Republican Patrick McDade. McDade promised Michael Gardner he would pursue Gotwalt, and eventually Morrogh said he would do the same. For his part, Michael Gardner had his wife Robin Gardner, then Mayor of Falls Church, send repeated letters to officials in Fairfax County demanding a “status update” on the case.
Central to renewed interest in prosecuting Gotwalt was a witness at his civil trial, Giuseppe Amedeo, who testified that Brandon Gotwalt had bested Steve Cornejo in the struggle, brought Cornejo to his knees by repeated pistol whipping, and while standing over Cornejo who was pleading for his life shot Cornejo in the back.
Amedeo’s testimony wasn’t supported by the forensic evidence, as the autopsy showed that Cornejo had a contact wound, which is also probably the only reason the snake shot had such a lethal effect. Amedeo also gave police a different accounting of the event when questioned immediately after the incident, a story change he was unable to explain to police when they questioned him a second time after his civil trial testimony.
In the civil trial, Cornejo’s ex-girlfriend also testified that she was not present. But as was noted by the police, she was so drunk that night that by her own admission she barely recalled the events of the night.
Gotwalt eventually filed for bankruptcy, which was approved by the courts. And as of this writing, it would appear that the Commonwealth Attorney’s office considers the case closed. But as you can see, some of the elements of this event are the same as the Trayvon Martin case: the media did not report all the facts, the victim was not the choir boy his family would like the world to believe, charges of racism were leveled, and politicians preened about seeing justice.
Patrick McDade, who made going after Gotwalt a campaign issue, lost his election bid to Raymond Morrogh in 2007. And Gerry Connolly, who was pressured by Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner and City Council Woman Lindy Hockenberry, did win his election bid to Congress and was re-elected again in 2010.
Though Michael Gardner kept the issue alive both as a blogger and eventual columnist for the Falls Church News-Press, as of this writing he is under indictment for molesting young girls at his daughter’s sleep overs on two separate occasions. While his wife is no longer Mayor of Falls Church, she remains on the city council for her last term ending in June of this year and is not seeking an additional term.