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Cornelius' life followed a long, troubled trail

Suspect in North Side boy's slaying went from state to state, working, begging

Sunday, October 22, 2000

Joseph Cornelius has been a drifter much of his life, leaving a trail of broken marriages and arrests for petty crimes all the way from his childhood home in Uniontown to his days in Texas after leaving the service and then back to Western Pennsylvania.

In June 1971, Joseph Cornelius, right foreground, eats dinner with other residents of The Ward Home for Children.

The man accused of molesting, killing and mutilating 11-year-old Scott C. Drake has led a turbulent personal life marked early on by his parents' separation, most recently with days spent homeless on Pittsburgh streets, and always with alcohol.

Known to be intelligent -- Cornelius attended college for two years, spent time in the Air Force and is conversant on politics and current affairs -- he nevertheless has scraped by for years panhandling.

Since Cornelius' arrest Sept. 27, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters have been following the trail he left over three decades in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia. He married at least four times and divorced at least three of those women.

None of the marriages lasted long.

At times he worked -- usually as a trucker -- but from 1985 on he was mostly transient, moving from state to state, staying in homeless shelters and panhandling.

His criminal record during his wanderings was neither extensive nor particularly violent: urinating in public, soliciting a prostitute, criminal trespass, creating a disturbance.

Cornelius' mother and sister did not respond to repeated Post-Gazette requests for interviews. His court-appointed attorney, John Elash, would not allow his client to be interviewed but maintained his client's innocence.

Left unanswered is what could drive a man with an unremarkable criminal history to do what police have accused him of doing: Committing one of the most brutal crimes in recent Pittsburgh history.

Fayette County roots

Cornelius was born July 3, 1953, in Uniontown, the second of four children of James V. Cornelius Sr. and Mary Gaffney Cornelius. They already had a 2-year-old son, James Jr. A third son, John, and a daughter, Jacqueline, would come later.

At the time, the Corneliuses worked as nursing-home administrators and lived in a Victorian home at 51 E. Highland Ave., a middle-class street near downtown Uniontown.

 
   

This story was written by Post-Gazette staff writers Cindi Lash and Steve Levin, based on their reporting and that of staff writers Johnna A. Pro, Dennis B. Roddy and Jonathan Silver.

 
 

Mary Cornelius moved out at some point, taking her children to a house on Millview Street, on the other side of town. James Cornelius remained in the Highland Avenue house, which, during the 1970s and 1980s, became run-down and shabby -- the neighborhood "scary house," said Tammy Boyle, who grew up nearby and now lives next door.

James became so reclusive that he lay undiscovered for several days after he died of a heart attack. His daughter found his body, slumped in a recliner, when she stopped to visit on his birthday, June 2, 1988.

According to his death certificate, the house was strewn with dirty dishes and garbage and was ant-infested. The death certificate also notes that his wife was not living with him.

Months later, Mary Cornelius moved back to 51 N. Highland Ave. Her son, Joseph, visited periodically, staying for days or weeks.

"Joseph Cornelius' lifestyle exhibits no aberrant behavior that would lend itself in any way or corroborate that he would do this to Scott Drake," said Elash, who maintains that his client was coerced into confessing to Pittsburgh police.

Police have said Cornelius confessed that he strangled Scott Sept. 24 after the boy tried to steal his radio following a sexual encounter in an isolated lot off East Ohio Street and that he mutilated the body to make it look like the work of a pedophile.

Detectives said Cornelius told them he threw a bag containing body parts and the boy's trousers into the Allegheny River. Police searched the river for days but never found the bag.

Elash said that prior to Cornelius' arrest last month, his client's brushes with the law had been "minor and summary in nature, typical of a homeless or migrant person" who had gotten in trouble. Cornelius' family, Elash said, believes that he is innocent.

Acquaintances said Mary Cornelius was a pleasant, opinionated woman who also stayed abreast of current affairs and politics and didn't hesitate to express her views.

In the mid-1980s, she opened the Flair Bridal Shop in a rented first-floor storefront at 34 E. Main St. in Uniontown. Phillip Jones, who owns the building, said she ran the shop first with her daughter, Jacqueline, and later by herself.

"It was a nice store, and they did a lot of business," said Jones, who until July operated a grocery store adjacent to the bridal shop. "There are only a couple of wedding places around here, so they kind of had a corner on the market. She was a very nice lady, and she never gave me a moment of trouble."

Jones said he never met Mary Cornelius' husband, but said she was more than capable of standing up for herself.

"She was feisty. I got along great with her, but she took no crap from anyone," Jones said. "If she had something on her mind, you'd know it. If [customers] pushed her hard enough, she didn't take it."

A series of construction projects in Uniontown took away parking spaces in the mid-1990s, and stores suffered, Jones said.

After Jacqueline Cornelius enrolled in nursing classes and spent less and less time at the store, Mary Cornelius gradually began to wind down her business, Jones said.

For a while, Mary Cornelius reduced the shop's hours, then opened just a few days a week. She closed the shop for good three or fours years ago, but continued to pay rent, Jones said.

"It was a weird situation, but as a landlord, who am I to complain? There was no wear and tear. She didn't finally get everything out until July."

Jones said he never met any of Cornelius' sons and didn't realize until days after Joseph Cornelius' arrest that he was one of her children.

"You can't help what your adult children do," he said. "She's a nice lady, a smart lady, and she can't be held responsible for what another adult does."

Acquaintances said Mary Cornelius also went back to school several years ago and now works for a nursing home in Westmoreland County.

Legal problems

Joseph Cornelius was not the first in his family to get into trouble as an adult.

His brother, James L. Cornelius, now 49, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison in Ohio after being pleading guilty to sexually assaulting four teen-agers in the Columbus area in the 1970s.

Eight months after his release from prison in September 1984, James Cornelius surfaced in Pittsburgh, where he was again arrested for a May 29, 1985, assault on a woman in Oakland. The woman escaped and ran naked and screaming to the former No. 4 police station in Oakland.

Someone spotted the license plate on his car when he attempted to follow her. Police traced the plate to Cornelius' sister, Jacqueline, who told them she'd loaned him the car.

James Cornelius was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and making terroristic threats. He was sentenced in 1986 to serve 10 to 20 years in prison. He was paroled in 1990 and his current whereabouts could not be determined.

John W. Cornelius, too, would become a major party to a police investigation. But he was the victim, not the perpetrator, of an attack.

John Cornelius died Dec. 9, 1984, after he was shot in his trailer alongside Smock Reservoir in Franklin Township. Prosecutors said the slaying stemmed from an argument with another man over that man's girlfriend.

At the time of his death, John Cornelius owned John's Auto Repairs in Brownsville and also listed an address at 51 E. Highland Ave. in Uniontown.

After his death, his sister, Jacqueline Cornelius Sherrin, now 38, moved into the trailer. She married a Smock man and has two children.

Awkward adolescence

Joseph went to elementary school at St. John's Catholic School in Uniontown. School officials would not check records to determine how many grades he completed.

Schoolmates described Joseph as a recluse who was nicknamed "Cornball" or "Corny" and often fought with those who taunted him. His senior yearbook at Uniontown High School contains no record that he participated in sports, clubs or activities.

Cornelius landed in a juvenile detention facility in his mid-teens, but records are unavailable to determine why.

It also could not be determined whether that had anything to do with Cornelius' move to Peters High School in Washington County in the 10th grade. He spent at least part of the 11th grade at Mt. Lebanon High School when he was a resident of the Ward Home for Children, a residential facility for troubled teens.

Another resident of the home at the same time recalled Cornelius as someone who tried to befriend others but rubbed them the wrong way.

The Rev. Bob Richards, president of the United Methodist Church Union, which oversees the Ward Home, said its records were purged every eight years.

Cornelius returned to Uniontown High School for his senior year in 1971-72 and graduated. He sent transcripts to two nursing schools but ended up attending Penn State's Fayette campus from September 1972 to May 1974.

Cornelius was enrolled as a liberal arts student, although Pittsburgh homicide investigators said he told them he'd been a political science major.

He was arrested July 24, 1973, in Uniontown for being drunk and disorderly and apparently was fined. He has no further criminal record in Fayette County, and the county jail has no record of him being held there.

Cornelius applied for a license to marry Mary G. Fetty, 19, of Brownsville, Fayette County, on April 6, 1974. On the application, Cornelius said he was a maintenance man, and Fetty said she was a nurse's aide.

Fetty died in 1989. Her son from a later relationship, Raul Delgado III of Brownsville, said she never talked about Cornelius.

"It didn't even last a year," he said of the marriage. "They divorced, and she never commented on it."

Off to Texas

On Halloween Day in 1974, Cornelius went to Pittsburgh to enlist in the Air Force. He entered active duty Dec. 11 and was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where he was a medical service specialist with the 6580th Medical Group.

He rose in rank to airman first class, essentially an automatic promotion for anyone who stays in the service for at least two years.

On June 14, 1976, he married Lorna Rose Burnett, a Kentucky native, and they lived near the base before divorcing in July 1977. Burnett, who was 21 at the time, now lives in Arkansas and couldn't be reached for comment.

Cornelius left the service Aug. 25, 1977, discharged before his four-year enlistment was up as were others after the Vietnam War. Cornelius has told acquaintances he was honorably discharged, but his military records say only that he was discharged.

He continued to live in San Antonio, working as a construction laborer and a trucker. On Valentine's Day 1980, he married Sandra Kay Watkins Bendele, a divorcee. Bendele, a Texas native who was seven years older than her new husband, sued him for divorce after seven months.

Deputy police Chief Charles Moffatt displays a photo of Joseph Cornelius, the homeless man charged in the brutal murder of 11-year-old Scott Drake of North Side. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Arrest in Florida

In April 1983, he married Janet L. Lozano, a San Antonio native with two children.

Lozano's father, Edward, said she met Cornelius at a junkyard where both worked. He said the couple moved to Florida, but that the marriage lasted only about 18 months.

Jacksonville police records show that Cornelius was arrested Oct. 21, 1983, and charged with soliciting a prostitute. He was fined $19 and spent two days in jail.

A police report said Cornelius was belligerent and uncooperative. He told officers he'd been in town for just three weeks and was living at 428 Minnie St., in an economically distressed part of the city.

Cornelius also told police he worked for a construction company in nearby Jacksonville Beach. No record of Cornelius' employment there could be found.

Cornelius listed Crossroads Enterprises Inc., a trucking company in Jacksonville, as an employer. A man who answered the phone at the business this month said he recalled Cornelius, but he could provide few details about him.

David Valiante Sr., Cornelius' uncle in Jacksonville, said Cornelius visited him after arriving in Florida from Texas. Valiante said his nephew introduced him to his wife, a Mexican-American woman with two children whom Cornelius called his kids.

Valiante, the younger half-brother of Cornelius' mother, said he'd last visited Uniontown in 1981 and was not close to that side of his family.

Valiante said of Cornelius: "He was always a weird type of person, a loner."

A few weeks after contacting Valiante the first time, Cornelius telephoned.

"He told me something about how he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. He told me he had a wife and some children, and he wanted me to take them some groceries. I told him I didn't go over to Minnie Street during the day, much less at night."

Before Cornelius left Jacksonville, he visited his uncle one last time.

"I ran him off, and I ain't seen him since," said Valiante. "I told him the next time he came through town to just keep on going."

Back to Texas

Although Cornelius' exact whereabouts after leaving Jacksonville could not be determined, he had returned to Texas by late 1984. A death notice for his brother, John, listed Joseph as a resident of Abilene. While in the panhandle city, Cornelius drove a truck for the Abilene Reporter-News.

He lived at 350 Peach St., near downtown, an eight-unit building called Patterson's Apartments.

On Jan. 6, 1985, Cornelius reported to Abilene police that two men had stolen $30 from him. Cornelius said the two used to work with him and that he had accepted their offer to share a beer near the train station.

He said one man grabbed him from behind and the other snatched the bills from him and ran away.

Six days later, Cornelius was arrested for fighting in a Dairy Queen on Butternut Street. According to the report filed after the incident, Cornelius left the Dairy Queen before police arrived, returned when they had left and resumed fighting. The report states that several witnesses said Cornelius was the instigator.

Eight months later, on Aug. 8, Abilene police arrested Cornelius a second time. An officer noticed Cornelius was driving with an expired license plate; a check showed an outstanding city warrant charging Cornelius with urinating in public and failing to appear in court on that charge.

The disposition of those cases could not be obtained from authorities in Abilene.

While in Abilene, Cornelius contacted the Crisis Line Community, a referral service for people needing emergency shelter, food or money.

The crisis line often refers callers to the Salvation Army at 1726 Butternut St., and Cornelius used that as his address.

Wearing a bulletproof vest, Joseph Cornelius is led to a hearing on Oct. 5. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Oklahoma to Kansas

Police in Norman, Okla., who have been tracking Cornelius' whereabouts during the late 1980s, said he moved to Elkland, Mo., in 1989. He secured a commercial driver's license and, for about five weeks, worked for a trucking company in Springfield.

According to Detective Steve Lucas, Pittsburgh police said Cornelius told them he drove a truck route between Springfield and Lawton, Okla., a distance of about 75 miles.

Lucas said Cornelius worked for a company called Covenant Transport from Oct. 12 to Dec. 1. But the company said that because Cornelius had only worked there for six weeks, it was unlikely that he had driven any major routes. Covenant said the Springfield-Lawton run on Interstate 44 was considered a major one.

Norman police also discovered that Cornelius graduated from a trucking school in Springfield.

Cornelius lived in a trailer park in rural Elkland, about 20 miles north of Springfield. Missouri state police have no record of Cornelius serving any time in jail.

After learning of Cornelius' arrest in Pittsburgh for Scott Drake's slaying, Norman police Lt. Mike Freeman said his department began gathering information to determine whether Cornelius could be linked to an unsolved case there. Lawton is 90 miles southwest of Norman.

On Oct. 22, 1990, a 10-year-boy was attacked by an assailant with a knife. His eye was poked out and his penis was nearly severed before he was wrapped in a blanket and left in a ditch. The boy survived.

"That was one of the biggest crimes to happen in Norman. There's been an awful lot of interest with every anniversary," Freeman said.

His department is investigating Cornelius "because of the similarity of the crime [in Pittsburgh] to ours here, and Mr. Cornelius told [Pittsburgh police] he'd been in Oklahoma. He's a viable suspect since the crimes are similar and he was in Oklahoma at some point in his life. He'll become a definite suspect the day we can prove he was in Norman, Okla., on Oct. 22, 1990.

"Since 1995, 1996, we've had only one or two leads. This is probably the best lead we've had in a long time."

Police in another Oklahoma city, Tulsa, have ruled Cornelius out as a suspect in a killing on June 20, 1989. In that case, 11-year-old Justin Wiles disappeared, and four days later parts of his body were recovered from a lake.

Tulsa police arrested a suspect in that case almost a year ago. Wayne Henry Garrison, 40, is awaiting trial.

But in Topeka, Kan., police who are continuing to investigate the slaying and mutilation of an 11-year-old boy in 1979 are waiting for Pittsburgh police to respond to their request for information about Cornelius and the Scott Drake case.

"This has been 20 years," Tulsa Detective Sgt. Dan Hay said. "A couple of weeks isn't going to make any difference."

A man was tried in the case last year and acquitted. Hay said police had always believed more than one person was involved.

"Your guy isn't any more a suspect than anyone else. I was doing an inquiry to see if he was out here at the time," Hay said.

Police are reviewing military and veterans records to see whether they can place Cornelius in Topeka.

"At this point, I don't think I'd classify it as anything more than a curiosity thing," Hay said.

Back to his roots

Cornelius' return to Western Pennsylvania in the early 1990s also prompted him to resume visiting his mother in Uniontown. Neighbors said he helped her with chores and made small talk with them on the sidewalk.

Although Cornelius never said anything threatening, some of his mother's neighbors said his disheveled appearance and his habit of staring at them while they were in their yards scared them.

Don Grenaldo, who runs a bus company that transports students for the Connellsville Area School District, said Cornelius drove for him in the late 1980s, presumably in 1989 after he left Missouri.

"He wasn't the best driver. He drank a lot. You could smell it on him in the morning," said Grenaldo, who added that Cornelius was fired after parents complained he would stop the bus to vomit.

Cornelius continued to drift in the early- to mid-1990s, with his wanderings taking him to Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi. On Nov. 1, 1993, he was arrested in Florence, Ky., on a charge of criminal trespass. The adjudication of the case could not be determined.

In 1995 he spent time in Hattiesburg, Miss., listing an address about a block from the Veteran Base Camp, a homeless shelter near the city's bus station and railroad tracks. Neither Hattiesburg police nor the Mississippi Department of Corrections has any records for him.

Eventually Cornelius made his way to Pittsburgh's West End, where he moved in with Helen Arlott and her youngest stepchild, Tara, on Steuben Street. Later, Cornelius and Arlott moved to an apartment at 414 Main St. that they shared with Arlott's ailing mother.

Acquaintances of the couple said Cornelius was a devoted companion to Arlott, joining her to sell the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on street corners and referring to her family as his own. Arlott's stepchildren, however, remember a freeloader who spent more time drinking than caring for Arlott when she became ill with cancer.

Cornelius began to frequent the West End Cafe, becoming such a regular that his photograph was included in a collage on a wall. At night after customers left, he often stayed at the request of a bartender who didn't want to be alone as she counted money.

He came to the bar sometimes as early as 9 a.m., "regular as clockwork," said Marion Andeits, the bar's former owner. A beer drinker, he came and went throughout the morning and afternoon, panhandling during prime traffic hours and returning to drink when he had cash.

While some people said Cornelius could be testy, Andeits said he never got out of hand. There is no record that Cornelius and Arlott ever married, but acquaintances said he referred to her as his wife and stayed with her until her death of cancer at age 65 in October 1997.

After Scott Drake's death, Cornelius' relationship with Arlott led Allegheny County police to investigate him in the 1991 disappearance of 8-year-old William Majewski from McKees Rocks.

Majewski was known to speak with Arlott as she sold newspapers on the street, and Cornelius was present when McKees Rocks police interviewed Arlott about the disappearance sometime after May 1992.

But there is no evidence to suggest that Cornelius was involved in the case or has any information about it. Although Majewski's mother, Alice Stubenrauch, declined Post-Gazette requests for an interview, investigators said she told them she had seen Cornelius with Arlott but doesn't believe he knew her son. Cornelius, who spoke with county police, denied he had anything to do with the child's death, authorities said.

A day after Arlott's death, Cornelius became violent with Barbara Howell, 55, of the Hill District, who is the natural mother of one of Arlott's stepdaughters, according to a police report.

The police report states that Cornelius "became irate and started yelling at the victim. Howell then stated that the suspect pushed her down the steps and kicked her in the face." Howell, who refused medical treatment, was told to take her complaint to a magistrate, but no record of the case could be found.

A downhill slide

After Arlott's death, acquaintances said Cornelius grew depressed and increased his drinking. He lost his job selling newspapers and was evicted from his Main Street apartment, Arlott's stepchildren said. Cornelius began living under the West End Bridge, turning down offers to bunk at the home of one of Arlott's stepdaughters.

In November 1998, he turned up in Charleston, W.Va., where he told police a man attempted to rob him at knife point. Cornelius said he sprayed the man in the face with pepper spray. Charleston police later arrested a man and charged him with aggravated robbery.

Later that year, Cornelius began showing up in McKees Rocks. Resident Ernie Dean recalled seeing Cornelius sleeping in a vacant building along Chartiers Creek until it was boarded up.

Cornelius frequented Max's Place in McKees Rocks. He bought a barmaid a pen and pencil set for her birthday, he stayed late to protect the female bartenders and he spoke about Arlott and his "grandkids."

In the past year, Cornelius began to spend more time on the North Side, where Scott Drake lived.

On Feb. 5, he was arrested for disorderly conduct and obstructing highways. Five days later, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and spent 15 days in the county jail.

On Sept. 15, Cornelius again was picked up for obstructing highways. Police said he was standing in the middle of East Street, blocking traffic. Cornelius was released on his own recognizance, failed to appear for a hearing in City Court Sept. 22 and was arrested five days later.

George Brice, manager of the West End Cafe, said that a little more than a year ago, Cornelius called him from Allegheny General Hospital. He said he had suffered a heart attack in the West End Circle.

Hospital officials confirmed that he was treated there July 23, 1999, but they would not say why. He also had been treated at AGH in January 1999, and he was treated this past July at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oakland.

Cornelius also panhandled at the south end of the Liberty Tunnels and sometimes stayed at an abandoned house on West Liberty Avenue. That's where police found him after witnesses said they had seen a man fitting his description with Scott Drake on Sept. 24, the day the boy disappeared.



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