Overcoming obstacles

Adam Cornell rises to the top as county prosecutor
By Brian Soergel and Brandon Gustafson | Mar 27, 2019
Photo by: Brian Soergel Adam Cornell in his office.

The American Dream was created with Adam Cornell in mind.

Overcoming a rough beginning – put up for adoption at age 8, shuttled around Washington’s foster care system in more than half-a-dozen foster homes – Cornell put his head down, hit the books, learned from mentors, and landed his reward as one of the most powerful people in Snohomish County.

Cornell is well known in Mukilteo for his work on the July 2016 shooting that left three Kamiak grads dead and another injured. Cornell has been a fixture at local events, such as YMCA fundraisers and an anti-gun violence rally put on by Kamiak students last spring.

Cornell, 46, is into his third month as Snohomish County prosecutor – an elected position – after more than 16 years as deputy prosecuting attorney. He ran unopposed in the general election in November after longtime county prosecutor Mark Roe – who endorsed Cornell’s election – stepped down.

Cornell’s a lifelong Democrat – and candidates must state a party preference when filing for the office – but the daily work of a prosecutor is meant to be nonpartisan.

“The decisions I make in cases and administering justice are not based on party,” he said. “They are based on what is the right thing to do.”

As prosecutor, Cornell is the leader of the largest public sector law firm in the county. He oversees 62 deputy prosecuting attorneys in the criminal division, 28 in the civil division and seven in the family support division. There are also about 100 support staff.

In addition, along with Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary, Cornell is the chief law enforcement officer in the county.

Deciding to charge a person for a felony crime is, of course, of utmost importance to Cornell.

“In order for my office to bring criminal charges against somebody, we have to believe that there are sufficient facts that meet the elements of the crime,” he said. “It’s to a degree that we believe we can prove the case to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard in our criminal justice system.

“And so we don't charge people with crimes because we think something happened. We charge people with crimes because we believe there is sufficient, admissible evidence that meets the law to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Cornell said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is America. This is really important.”


Mukilteo shooting

In 2016, a defining case for Cornell – who said he wants to continue to be a voice for supporting common-sense gun laws, including enhanced background checks and raising the age limit to buy military-style rifles – came with the triple murder of three Kamiak High School graduates at a Mukilteo house party.

Anna Bui, Jake Long, and Jordan Ebner were all shot and killed. A fourth Kamiak grad, Will Kramer, was injured, but made a full recovery.

The triple murder was the city’s first homicides in 14 years.

Cornell was one of several senior deputy prosecutors called to the scene of suspected homicides to review search warrants and to offer legal advice to police.

“I was not on homicide duty when the call came on the Mukilteo case,” he said. “The reason I got it was that because Mukilteo PD had not had a homicide in so many years that the detectives called the on-call prosecutor who handles non-homicide cases, a different assignment.

“I was supervising a deputy prosecuting attorney who got that call. She appropriately called me for assistance because it was her first time on duty, and she had never handled a homicide before.

“It was tragic. I got called at about 1 in the morning. Being at the scene of that mass shooting – seeing the aftermath and what an AR-15 can do – profoundly affected me.”

Cornell consulted with the affected families of the Mukilteo shooting in the days after the murders.

A former Kamiak student, Allen Christopher Ivanov, 19 at the time of the shooting, was convicted of the shooting and sentenced to life in prison at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Ivanov was Bui’s ex-boyfriend, who said he was upset that she had seemingly moved on and started dating other people.

Ivanov legally purchased the rifle at Cabela’s, and told authorities he was reading the gun manual outside of the house prior to the shooting. He reportedly texted friends that he was planning to conduct a shooting, and had made cryptic social media posts in the days leading up to the shooting.

Cornell has been vocal about increasing gun restrictions in the state, speaking at the state Legislature on the issue in 2018.

“It was that experience that really motivated my support for being a voice for gun violence prevention,” Cornell said. “I was always for common sense gun reform, but it moved me to be a greater voice.”



Cornell’s early years were tough.

“My mom was an alcoholic and drug addict. Plain and simple,” he said. “My father was also an alcoholic, and used to beat the crap out of my mom. My dad left us when I was 5, and I never saw him again.”

Cornell was the youngest of four children, who grew up in Whatcom County. He continues to keep in touch with his sister, Alex, who attended his swearing-in ceremony in January.

“Like many children placed in foster care, it was not easy for us to keep in touch, but we did, and our relationship has endured as adults,” Cornell wrote on his Facebook page last year.

Struggling with addiction, Cornell’s mother gave him up for adoption at age 8. Luckily for Cornell, he was placed for a while with a woman named Stella Mae Carmichael, who was 65 at the time and cared for hundreds of foster children in her lifetime.

(His last contact with his birth mother came in 2001, but Cornell said they have since lost touch.)

Today, he acknowledges those who encouraged him as a foster child – mothers and fathers, teachers, mentors – and helped him learn about life. Cornell bounced from home to home until he was adopted at age 14 by Randy Stubbs, the baseball coach at Edmonds-Woodway High School and campus supervisor at Woodinville High School.

Cornell went on to become the student-body president at Woodinville High. But he eventually found himself without a family again.

“Three weeks before graduation at Woodinville High, my father committed suicide,” Cornell said. (Stubbs hanged himself in an equipment shack at the old Edmonds High School.) “I had so many struggles as a kid. But I also had wonderful people who gave me so much. I want to honor the sacrifice of all people who believed in me.”

Cornell graduated magna cum laude and earned a degree in government from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1995. He then joined the Peace Corps and served in Georgetown, Guyana.

Cornell then earned a law degree in 2001 from Lewis & Clark Law School College in Portland; he was selected by faculty to join the school’s honor society.

Cornell’s entry into Snohomish County law came in 2001 when he became a judicial clerk for Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ellen Fair.

It didn’t take long for Cornell to become a deputy prosecuting attorney, a position he held from 2002 through 2018. During that time, he also was on loan to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle as a special assistant attorney, prosecuting federal drug trafficking, firearms, and financial crimes.

During his tenure at the prosecutor’s office, Cornell was integral to not only prosecuting some of the highest profile criminal cases, but also to expanding alternative justice programs, especially those aimed at helping people suffering mental illness and addiction crises receive treatment instead of costly and ineffective incarceration.

Cornell said he views these types of alternative sentencing and treatment programs as critical not only for improving criminal justice, but also for reducing low-level property crimes connected to the opioid epidemic, the latter being one of his priorities.



During his first three months in office, Cornell said his biggest accomplishment so far has been the county’s filing suit Jan. 28 against Purdue Pharma – the maker of OxyContin – its national distributors, and their close associates in Snohomish County “in an effort to hold them accountable for poisoning our community and fueling the opioid crisis.”

Challenges? Cornell goes with a baseball metaphor.

“In any leadership role there are always unexpected curveballs,” Cornell said. “My team and I have been agile in facing unexpected challenges, and collaborative in problem-solving. The curveballs will undoubtedly keep coming, but my team and I know how to keep our eye on the ball.”

One of those curveballs surfaced in January, when a former administrator who worked under Roe, Chief of Operations Bob Lenz, claimed Roe oversaw a hostile workplace filled with sexually charged talk. Earlier this month, Lenz filed suit in King County Superior Court against Snohomish County.

Although the suit’s claims occurred before Cornell took over, Cornell agreed to discuss the case in response to a query from The Daily Herald in Everett, which he shared with The Beacon.

“Mr. Lenz’s claims are focused upon the comments and other conduct of my predecessor, and frankly describe conduct that is highly inappropriate in any workplace,” Cornell wrote. “I consider it particularly important that a prosecuting attorney’s office, which the public looks to for the enforcement of the laws, must operate at the highest level of professionalism and respect.”

Lenz is still employed by Snohomish County, but Cornell said his last day will come at the end of this month. In November, Cornell told Lenz – who is not an attorney – that it was in the best interest of the office and community to have an attorney in the chief of staff role, a role in which he supervises attorneys.

Lenz said Cornell’s decision was due to his age – Lenz is 61 – but Cornell said that was not the case.


Remembering his past

Cornell said he never forgets where he came from, how he was forced to embark on his life path with the help of family and mentors. He especially credits Terry Freeman, director of the Kirkland-Redmond Boys & Club, which Cornell attended.

In 1990, Cornell received the Boys and Girls Club National Youth of the Year Award in Washington, D.C., which earned him a $15,000 scholarship. In his corner office at the courthouse, he keeps a framed picture of himself accepting the honor with President George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office. Freeman was there with them.

Cornell’s super busy now, but will still find time to volunteer and speak to child advocacy groups.

“I will continue to speak on behalf of organizations that do good work for children in the foster care system,” Cornell said. “I’ll continue to be an advocate for children and families.”




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