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Man faces murder charge

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John Douglas Cornell

A man wanted for questioning in connection with the weekend slaying of a Stafford woman has been arrested and charged with murder.

John Douglas Cornell, 45, is accused of killing 59-year-old Roberta Dews at their home at 21 Kellogg Mill Road in the Hartwood area. Dews, who had last been seen alive on Saturday, was found by a family member Sunday, police said.

Police have still not released the cause of death or many other details about the case, citing the ongoing investigation.

But affidavits for search warrants filed in Stafford Circuit Court indicate that Dews was strangled to death with an electrical cord.

According to Sheriff’s Office spokesman Bill Kennedy, Cornell called the Stafford County Emergency Communications Center at 7 a.m. Tuesday and said he was in a parking lot on State Route 218 (White Oak Road) near the King George–Stafford line and wanted to turn himself in.

He was standing next to a stolen Chevrolet van belonging to Dews’ sister when deputies arrived, and he was taken into custody without incident.

Information obtained during the ensuing investigation resulted in Cornell being charged with first-degree murder. He was already charged with grand larceny in the theft of the van.

Police would not discuss the connection between Cornell and Dews, but court records show he lived in the same house as her and had threatened to kill her at least twice, including once the day before she was found dead.

One affidavit states that Dews called her sister about 2:40 Saturday afternoon and told her she would be “lucky if she lived through the night.”

William Dews, the victim’s brother, called police Sunday to report that he’d found his sister dead with an electrical cord around her neck. He immediately identified Cornell as a suspect, court records state.

Todd Nosal, the lead detective in the case, wrote that the cord had been wrapped around Roberta Dews’ neck several times and blood was visible at the scene.

Another affidavit mentioned that there were broken eyeglasses on a plastic bag near Dews, who was on the living room floor, and dried blood in her right ear and across the lower part of her face and nose.

It was not clear in either affidavit why Cornell was upset with Dews, though it was mentioned that he was angry about the “messy” condition of the house.

One affidavit described Cornell as an Army veteran who was under psychiatric care for unknown reasons.

Court records state that the Sheriff’s Office had gotten three prior reports of Cornell threatening suicide, but the last incident was 10 years ago.

Nosal wrote that when Cornell was taken into custody, he made numerous “spontaneous admissions” regarding the slaying.

He later gave a formal statement in which he admitted killing Dews and taking the van, court records state. He also took Dews’ cellphone and credit card and used the card to make multiple purchases.

Court records state that Dews’ sister, Angia Grove, reported that she went to the residence Saturday to help Dews clean.

She said Cornell was sitting outside in a van and did not speak or come inside to help. He later told Grove that he was leaving that day and would not be coming back.

Dews was a longtime member at Grace United Methodist on Elk Ridge Road in Stafford, where she co-led the youth Sunday school and participated in numerous other activities.

Brenda Pusso, the pastor of the church, said the woman known as “Berta” or “Berdie” had a “unique personality.

“She poured her life into others, she gave extravagantly, she believed the best in people,” Pusso wrote in an email.

Pusso said church members got word about the slaying just as the 11 a.m. service was ending Sunday. “Shock and sadness, anger and frustration, tears and groans of pain ripped through us,” she wrote.

She said members gathered at the church that evening to read Scriptures, sing, cry, laugh and tell “Berta” stories.

Tom Taylor said he’d lived across the road from Dews for about 20 years. He described her as “very sweet, a good neighbor.”

He said the only time neighbors saw Cornell was when he came outside to drink under a tree. He wasn’t allowed to drink beer inside the home.

“We just couldn’t understand why he was there, why she took him in,” Taylor said. “Nobody knew anything about him.”

Lindley Estes contributed to this report.

Keith Epps: 540/374-5404