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When guns take a son

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Ron Cornell’s son Joey was gunned down in Las Vegas on July 16, 1998. Ron has become active in victims’ assistance and serves as a patient ear for other parents of murder victims.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

“Joey was …” It’s the cruelest way for any parent to start a sentence, but that’s how the interview with Ron Cornell begins. “Joey was the life of a party. Sixteen years old. Heart of gold. He also was mischievous at times—got away with a lot of things, but he also got caught at a lot of things.”

Ron has been talking about his son in the past tense for almost 15 years now. On July 16, 1998, Joey Cornell was gunned down in his car a block and a half from his mother’s front door.

Ron was at home across the Valley when he got that unimaginable phone call. He drove to the hospital first, desperately hoping his son would be there. “You can’t describe the feeling,” he says of getting the news. “It’s a void. It’s like, this isn’t happening. I couldn’t tell you exactly what my thoughts and feelings were because it wasn’t real; it didn’t take place.”

Ron Cornell has restored his son Joey's car. In the two years when his killer was at large, Ron brought the car to shows to raise awareness about his son's murder.

For two years and 10 days, the primary suspect in Joey’s murder evaded capture. Gonzalo Hernandez Villalobos was a former neighbor, and Ron had accused his son of statutory sexual seduction against Ron’s 12-year-old daughter. Villalobos threatened violence if the charges weren’t dropped, but Ron never imagined he’d pick up a gun. Villalobos was eventually convicted of murder in the second degree.

For Ron, life has gone on, but it’s a different life. He’s dedicated himself to working on victims’ rights, lobbying the Legislature, meeting with families of murder victims and listening to parents who feel like they’re the only ones in the world to know such horror. Helping them helps him, he says. “There isn’t nothing you’ve done I haven’t done. I have screamed. I have kicked the walls. I have cried like a baby. I’ve done it all.”

And Ron has had another reaction to his son’s violent death: He’s become a more serious gun owner. “For me, because of the threats against my family, because of the murder of my son, I owned a rifle at the time I lost my son; I now own several guns,” he says. “I’ve had to suffer the worst of the worst, and I’ll be darned if someone is going to tell me I can’t protect myself.”

His daughter, his son, his mother—they’ve all gone to the range and learned to shoot. They know where to find Ron’s gun safe, where the key is kept and how to use the weapons inside should they ever need to. Still, when I ask if training his family has made Ron feel safer, he pauses. “Does it make me feel safer? I don’t know. I would probably say yes, if it’s an invasion of my home. I would hope their first response would be 911 and their second response would be to get somewhere safe in the house and have a gun ready in case they get to that point.”

Sitting in his office surrounded by photos of the son who never grew up, Ron Cornell sees a violent world right outside his door. “You never know when, and it can happen to you. It really can.”

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