The Tragic Convergence of Race, Mental Health, and Violence Can Kirkwood recover from the mass political assassinations of ten years ago?

On February 7, 2008, Charles “Cookie” Thornton, a lifelong resident of Meacham Park in Kirkwood, Missouri, gathered up a large white poster board from his room in the house he had shared with his mother, Annie Bell, and brother Gerald.

On one side, the poster board read, “The unrest in Meacham Park will continue until the racist plantation mentality of the Kirkwood officials are [sic] addressed,” written in black marker, and the other side read “Justice of Constitution Rights is all I seek.”

On his bed, he had scrawled on a single sheet of paper, “The truth has a way of winning in the end!!!” In an interview with police, Gerald recalls that his brother went into his room for a short while and emerged with his regular protest signs that day. Annie and Gerald thought Thornton was headed to Kirkwood City Hall only to recommence his consuming devotion, for a litany of reasons, to protesting at City Council meetings. His family had become accustomed to the rituals of this routine. “To God be the glory. I love you. I’ll see you later,” he said to Gerald and their mother. Though “later,” whatever that meant, would come and go.

Several more poster board signs that echoed similar sentiments were recovered from Thornton’s room later that evening when the police searched it. The incident report describes the amount of paperwork found in Thornton’s room as “massive.”

Also found were notices from the City of Kirkwood, recordings of City Council meetings, and documents from his many court cases involving Kirkwood, where he was both defendant and plaintiff. One of Thornton’s poster board signs that the police uncovered read: “‘Kirkwood’ buy here! You too can enjoy the quality of a lying Jackass for a mayor.” Nearby, they also recovered an award presented to Thornton for dedicated service to Kirkwood between June 1995 and February 2001, which had been stuffed in a satchel. The award was signed by Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda, who defended Thornton’s right to appear at City Council meetings when others wanted him banned. Thornton would later shoot Swoboda twice in the head.

According to Gerald’s interview with the police, Thornton had been living in St. Petersburg, Florida, with his second wife Maureen. Thornton told Gerald he had simply returned home to clear up some legal issues with Kirkwood City Hall. The night of February 7, 2008, after Thornton told his brother and mother that he loved them, he went to Kirkwood City Hall for the City Council meeting and murdered six people: director of public works Ken Yost, council member Michael Lynch, council member Connie Karr, police officer Tom Ballman, police officer William Biggs, and Mayor Swoboda. Swoboda was sent to the hospital in critical condition, and died several months later in September of that year due to complications from the shooting. Thornton was apprehended by two responding officers, and killed on the scene.

 

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“It’s hard for me to describe Cookie Thornton,” says John Hessel, Kirkwood’s city attorney, who had known him for years before the incident and was there the night of the shooting. “I never classified Cookie Thornton in the category of a mean person. We’ve all met mean people. I never saw him as a person trying to pick a fight. He could be very cordial. And then he’d—fly off.” Thornton spent significant time protesting outside of Lewis Rice law firm, where Hessel still works. Hessel remembers how Thornton’s tendencies began innocently enough, and then became increasingly more distressing. “In order to understand it, you have to go back in time and gain an appreciation for what took place,” says Hessel.

Today, Thornton is remembered as an almost hypothetical, mythological persona. Many attempts have been made to piece him together through interviews, court documents, photographs, and first-person testimonies from those who knew him, trying to scratch the surface of why a once a beloved member of his community would commit such an atrocity against it.

 

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Meacham Park, where Thornton once lived, is a small, historically African-American community. The neighborhood was annexed through eminent domain in 1991 by Kirkwood, the adjacent wealthier, majority-white neighborhood. Part of Meacham Park was later demolished to make way for what is now Kirkwood Commons, a local shopping center with big-box stores like Target, Wal-Mart, Home Goods, and TJ Maxx. By that time Thornton had married his first wife, Marilyn Thornton, and had his only child Sarah Thornton, born the same year Meacham Park was annexed. Cookie and Marilyn divorced when Sarah was a toddler, and her mother took her to West Palm Beach, Florida, where she settled into a job at Publix Super Markets as a scanning coordinator.

Ward remembers the moment when it seemed the prospect of unemployment bred a corrosive kind of humiliation within Thornton. The details of exactly how that transpired remain hazy.

“Once I moved down here, he wasn’t really part of my life. Just a couple of phone calls here and there,” says Sarah, now in her mid-twenties. A recent graduate of Florida A&M University with a major in criminal justice, Sarah works at a local courthouse in West Palm Beach. “He came to visit once. I was maybe six. The only memories I have are from pictures. One memory I do have is when he called on Christmas one year, and I was outside with my older brother. We were playing with some remote control cars or something. I was outside on the street, talking either on a cell phone or a cordless landline, and I could tell he was trying to reach out to me … I do think he regretted not being a bigger part of my life.”

Thornton, who owned a demolition and construction business called Cookco Construction, was a major proponent of Kirkwood’s annexation of Meacham Park, which had long been neglected by St. Louis County. In 1965, five children died in a house fire in Meacham Park because the community fire truck would not start. For years the community did not have adequate plumbing, reliable streetlights, or sidewalks. Thornton expected the annexation would breathe life into his business, with new construction projects and contracts for work once plans began to develop the Kirkwood Commons. However, other residents opposed the redevelopment. “Meacham Park is plagued by people interested in our land,” said Harriet Patton in a 1996 article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Twenty-two years later, Patton still leads the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association as president. Thornton is quoted in the same article, but in support of the annexation.

Residents were told becoming a part of Kirkwood would mean Meacham Park would have the means to receive basic metropolitan amenities, and that a portion of the funds generated by the Kirkwood Commons would be reinvested in their community. “They didn’t even have fire protection before,” says Paul Ward, the second black city council member to ever serve on Kirkwood City Council, now in his second term. Like Thornton, Ward also has a background in construction. During his first job at a large St. Louis-based construction company, he alleges some white employees would routinely threaten to put on white sheets and come after him. “How many of my white friends had to deal with that who grew up here in Kirkwood? None. White privilege is a fact. You can let that fester in you and poison you. But I choose to look at each day as an opportunity.”

After Meacham Park was annexed, community leadership began strategizing to build the Kirkwood Commons. Ward was appointed chairman of the redevelopment plan. “I knew the accusations that would be made about me,” he says. “‘You’re not one of us. You’re not black enough. You’re in the pocket of the white man.’ That’s fine. I’ve got a God to answer to. Not those folks.” Ward paints a discouraging portrait of how the history of Meacham Park developed. “A lot of ills had been put on that neighborhood, and we were trying to find a way to cure it,” he said. “The overriding cure was to bring property values up to what they should have been. That was what we tried to do: give people what they should have monetarily. Because the keys out of poverty are education and property ownership. Period.”

After the plan was approved, the city hired a developer and began issuing contracts, requiring them to use a certain number of minority business owners—especially those who lived in Meacham Park. That included Thornton, who was hired to do some of the demolition work. However, Hessel remembers one day when he happened to be at City Hall and Thornton came running in, upset that the developer, DESCO, had fired him.

“I said, ‘Why’d they fire you?’” Hessel recalls. “Cookie said, ‘Well they claimed that I wasn’t doing the job quickly enough.’ I said, ‘Are they right?’ He said, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ I said, ‘Cookie, the city can’t help you. You need to go back and beg them to allow you a second chance.’”

Reflecting on it now, Hessel still maintains that it is fatally flawed to call the Kirkwood City Council racist. “In the general environment of Kirkwood, race is not an issue. But as my friend Paul Ward says, ‘Hessel, you’ve never been black. How do you know this?’ And I say, ‘You’re right. I haven’t.’”

Thornton filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the promised construction contracts in 1999, and also filed for bankruptcy that same year with the Missouri Eastern Bankruptcy Court. Ward remembers the moment when it seemed the prospect of unemployment bred a corrosive kind of humiliation within Thornton. The details of exactly how that transpired remain hazy. “I was also part of the team that worked on the annexation. I was involved from the very beginning,” says Ward. “As Cookie was a contractor in Meacham Park, we set it up so that he had to be utilized. But he’d still have to bid, and he didn’t do that. He thought, ‘I’m here, you’ve gotta use me.’ And it fell apart from there.”

Ward says that Thornton was still given work through other avenues, and that he had counseled him about how to build business relationships with large developers. “Several people who served in Kirkwood City Government, who he labeled as racists, had tried to assist him in one way or another.”

At first, the signs of Thornton’s unraveling seemed benign. He would clear a lot and dump a truck full of debris on a vacant lot in Meacham Park near his home and leave his equipment illegally parked, infractions that drew citations under Kirkwood’s ordinances. Ward surmises Thornton wanted to keep his equipment close to sites where he worked as it permitted him to cut corners, reducing the time and money he would need to expend.

“We said, ‘Cookie, you can’t do that,’” Hessel recalls, to which Thornton responded, “Well, I’ve been doing it for years.” New ordinances applied when Meacham Park had become part of Kirkwood, yet Thornton continued to park his truck on vacant lots and dump excess debris.

Hessel says Thornton’s neighbors began complaining. Ken Yost, who served as Kirkwood’s director of public works until he was murdered by Thornton, was tasked with issuing Thornton tickets in an effort to get him to comply with the ordinances. “We didn’t get very far. We kept saying, ‘Come on, Cookie. Just stop.’ And he wouldn’t,” Hessel says.

Ward advised Thornton to just pay the fines and be done with it. After Thornton received multiple citations, accruing thousands of dollars in debt, Hessel recalls Thornton coming to City Council meetings and accusing Kirkwood of having a “plantation-like mentality,” followed by screaming rants at Yost during the citizen comments section of City Council meetings. Thornton was convicted of assaulting Yost twice, once in 2001 and again in 2002. He was also arrested twice at City Council meetings in 2006, and arrested again after assaulting the owner of PJ’s Restaurant in Kirkwood in June of 2007.

In Meacham Park, city funds were recently used to renovate the neighborhood’s basketball courts, for which there was a grand reopening on September 10, 2016. However, property values in Kirkwood often soar from $200,000 for a home to almost $1 million, while property values in Meacham Park range from $9,000 for an empty lot to $150,000 for a house.

Clark Randall, a St. Louis-based writer, remembers growing up in Kirkwood and spending time in Meacham Park, with his friends who lived there. As a white resident of Kirkwood, he was struck by how much time and attention his black friends spent attempting to avoid interactions with the police in Meacham Park. “Obama was up for election in ‘08, and there were fights about it between Meacham Park kids and the kids I knew from Kirkwood. The difference, if you drive through it, is unreal. Many of the remaining residents work in Kirkwood, but are so socially and economically isolated. There are literally walls, with one way in and one way out.”

“As Cookie was a contractor in Meacham Park, we set it up so that he had to be utilized. But he’d still have to bid, and he didn’t do that. He thought, ‘I’m here, you’ve gotta use me.’ And it fell apart from there.”

“We all grow up thinking that we deserve to be where we are. That it wasn’t given to you through racial privileges over generations,” Randall says. “My dad, for example. He really did work hard. But everybody works hard. People in Meacham Park work hard.”

After the shooting, Randall was aghast at how Art McDonnell, mayor of Kirkwood at the time, consistently implored residents to believe there were no issues of race in Kirkwood. In a 2009 interview with the St. Louis Beacon, McDonnell says, “We really don’t have a race problem. City Hall murderer, Charles ‘Cookie’ Thornton, was motivated by personal financial problems rather than race,” and again in a 2013 story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch saying, “It wasn’t an issue of race … This guy was crazy.” More public figures in Kirkwood gravitated towards “mental health issues” as a suitable catch-all to explain what had happened inside Thornton. Race was not a factor. It had nothing to do with it. We do not have a race problem.

The resulting public dialogue in Kirkwood cleanly severed any ties between Thornton and racial oppression, in all its myriad forms. “One side says race was a factor, and Kirkwood says it was solely about mental health. They’re saying the same thing, they’re just talking past each other,” Randall says. “One just doesn’t want to say ‘race.’ People start the conversation in the wrong place. They talk about Thornton’s morality and not the history that created him. If someone has mental health issues, that doesn’t mean we stop talking about race. I think he was angry for a while, but then he became bitter. And then couldn’t operate anymore on any level.”

 

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After the shooting, the US Department of Justice intervened to help establish a mediation team and agreement between residents of Kirkwood and Meacham Park. In a May 2008 letter to Department of Justice liaison William Whitcomb, Harriet Patton wrote: “The challenge and concerns of residents run deep and are not something that started with Charles Lee Cookie Thornton’s tragedy.”

She also enclosed a packet of concerns voiced by citizens of Meacham Park, which included: racial profiling of Meacham Park residents by Kirkwood police, Meacham Park students not being treated equally to Kirkwood students at school, and the lack of explanation of how eminent domain would affect residents. In July 2008, she followed up with another letter to Whitcomb requesting a timeline of expected results from the mediation process and a line-by-line plan to address citizen’s grievances. In September 2009 she wrote a formal resignation letter from the mediation team, stating, “After many meetings and much discussion and careful consideration, I have concluded that this process has little or no possibility of forging a consensus on reasonable and necessary actions for the future.”

At first, the signs of Thornton’s unraveling seemed benign. He would clear a lot and dump a truck full of debris on a vacant lot in Meacham Park near his home and leave his equipment illegally parked, infractions that drew citations under Kirkwood’s ordinances.

When asked as to whether her father faced racial discrimination throughout his recourse to the legal process, Sarah responded, “I do. From what I knew of him, and all that I’ve read. I also see how it could happen and how common it is in my own work. I see cases come in where there was no probable cause. I see a lot of things that go wrong. Being Black in America, the road forward isn’t always going to be open to you.”

Sarah’s mother, Marilyn, eventually confided in her that the single largest contributing factor to their divorce, initiated by Thornton, was her mother’s weight gain during and after pregnancy. He berated her for years about it, imploring her to lose weight. “My mother didn’t keep that from me. And I never wanted to reach out to him for those reasons. He wanted a trophy wife to be there for show. I thought, ‘If you don’t like my mother because of her weight, I’m not going to want to be around you.’ And here I am, not the smallest thing ever,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder if he would have disliked me down the line.”

 

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On an agreeable Thursday evening in September 2016, Kirkwood’s City Council meeting proceeds smoothly enough. John Hessel still serves as city attorney, and Tim Griffin has since become mayor. There is still the same dias, the one that provided protection during the shooting, with handsomely dressed councilmembers in suits, ties, and blazers behind it. Oil paintings of previous mayors in thick gold frames line the walls of the room. All in attendance recite the Pledge of Allegiance, there is a roll call, and a woman in a blue shirt makes a presentation about “Constitution Week.” A group of volunteers from Hands on Kirkwood wear bright yellow shirts, and appear at the meeting for a photograph with the Mayor and to accept an official proclamation denoting the first Saturday of October each year as “Hands on Kirkwood Day.” Councilmembers carry out their various roles, submit reports, review bills. All goes smoothly.

In Meacham Park there is a Neighborhood Improvement Association meeting each month that typically takes place in the basement of Turner Elementary School, where Thornton’s nephew, Jayson Thornton, serves as treasurer. Harriet Patton still leads the September 2016 meeting, and begins by having each attendee offer a brief introduction and their favorite flavor of ice cream. Dressed in a sparkly blouse with large silver hoop earrings and a bandanna, she shares hers: orange sherbet with chocolate. The association shows a slideshow of photographs from a recent event called Pride in Our Park, the grand reopening of the park’s renovated basketball courts. The photographs show many residents of Meacham Park in attendance as well as Kirkwood’s former mayor, Art McDonnell, current mayor Tim Griffin, and police chief Jack Plummer. There was a ribbon cutting, games, fruits and vegetables donated from Schnuck’s, and food from McDonald’s. “We want to keep this community positive. P-O-S-I-T-I-V-E,” she spells out.

Bum Yong Kim, monitor of the Kirkwood Police Substation in Meacham Park gives a report, then passes out fliers for an upcoming event called Inter-Minority Dialogue: Learning from and building bridges among ethnic minorities in St. Louis. The event features speakers of different ethnicities and walks of life living in St. Louis. “We need more social intelligence regarding minorities,” Kim says. “This event is geared not just towards black and white, but immigrants as well. And you don’t have to be a minority to attend.”

It is almost surreal to be around these people who knew Thornton, who lived alongside him and shared his community.

 

•  •  •

 

Over the years, Sarah did notice a trend in her father Cookie: that he would make an effort with her when things were looking up for the business or a cash infusion was on the horizon.

“He never really came out and apologized for not being there in my life,” says Sarah. “But when I would talk to him he would ask, ‘What are you up to? How are your grades?’ Things like that. When I talked to him he sounded very positive, like he wanted to get to know me.

“If he had a good day, he’d want to talk to me. But then three years would go by and I wouldn’t hear from him. He couldn’t give himself to anyone 100 percent.”

Sarah’s mother has pointed out to her how she walks like her father, laughs like him, and even holds her arms as he used to. While Sarah sometimes finds herself picturing what her life may have looked like had her father been in it, she has no childhood memories of wondering when he was coming home, back into her life. She never remembers wanting for anything—Christmas was always plentiful, her 98-year-old grandmother cooked Sunday dinner from scratch, and her half-brother, 17 years her senior, did everything a father would do. She remembers him taking her to the dentist, styling her hair on Saturdays, giving her rides and taking her on errands. “I was raised in a Christian home and to always try and see the best in people.”

 

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Thornton appealed the many tickets he had accumulated in Kirkwood at the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, with no lawyer, accusing Kirkwood of being a kangaroo court. “Unsurprisingly the City Council said, ‘Hessel, go fix this.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s going to be fun,’” Hessel remembers.

Hessel sat down with Thornton and told him what the city had decided: The city would not require him to pay fines he owed—which at that point totaled in the range of $30,000—if Thornton would just stop. Stop being disruptive at the City Council meetings. Stop ignoring ordinances and fines. And stop screaming at City Council members. “He just kept saying, ‘I’m not guilty of anything,’” says Hessel.

After Hessel testified against Thornton in his final lawsuit against the City of Kirkwood in January of 2007, Thornton’s vendetta intensified. “My reputation of being arrested has been destroyed. It is very embarrassing being handcuffed and drug out of a public meeting when relatives and friends and family members are there, and also, the damage it does to the mental state of an individual is very—is very wrong,” Thornton, according to court proceedings, said.

“I didn’t know what to make of it. I hoped and prayed that if I just ignored him, he’d go away. He was like a kid throwing a temper tantrum. And he’d leave, from time to time. His wife moved down to Florida, so he’d go down to Florida too and he’d be gone. We’d think, ‘Thank God. It has ended.’

Hessel’s case on behalf of the city was clean and airtight, hard-earned after years in law school and on the job. Thornton represented himself, as he always did.

Thornton’s briefings and writings were called “incomprehensible.” During one court proceeding, he handed judge Catherine Perry a one-page sheet that gave Webster’s Dictionary definitions for the words “ass,” “fool,” “damned,” “idiot,” “jack ass,” “monkey,” “signified,” and “hell,” among others. “I don’t quite understand what you’re telling me you want,” Perry asked Thornton in the court transcripts. He explained that he had asked the City Council to sign the document denoting whether using any phrase on the list of words were sufficient grounds to have him removed from the meeting, and also admits to addressing the council in “Jackass-ese.” “I don’t just say, ‘Mayor, you are a jackass.’ What I said is, “The mayor is displaying jack ass-like qualities,” which means that the quality that he is displaying is very stubborn and not listening what I have to say.”

Thornton began appearing at the law firm where Hessel worked, and eventually outside Hessel’s home. “I didn’t know what to make of it. I hoped and prayed that if I just ignored him, he’d go away. He was like a kid throwing a temper tantrum. And he’d leave, from time to time. His wife moved down to Florida, so he’d go down to Florida too and he’d be gone. We’d think, ‘Thank God. It has ended.’ Then he’d come back worse than what he was before.”

“He’d be picketing in front of the building and then say, ‘Hello Mr. Hessel! How are you today?’ And I’d say, ‘Cookie. You’re really going to greet me while you’re calling me a liar?’ That’s just what he did. I—I don’t know what it was. That’s why I did not see it coming.”

The day Thornton appeared picketing outside Hessel’s home, the weekend of his young daughter’s birthday, was particularly upsetting. Hessel recalls that his daughter spotted Thornton standing outside the family home, then asked her father if the man with the signs was there to wish her a happy birthday.

“When you met Cookie, initially he would have a big smile on his face and say, ‘Good morning! How’s everyone?’ And he really came across very gregarious. But the way he treated Yost and then Mike Swoboda, and virtually every member of City Council who were going out of their way to help him—Connie Karr in particular, who he ended up murdering … ” Hessel does not finish the thought.

“I never envisioned him as being a person who would just murder innocent people right in front of me.” When people tell Hessel they cannot imagine what he has experienced, he says, “Don’t. I don’t want you to. Take your worst nightmare, multiply it by whatever number you want, take it up exponentially, and you’re not even close.”

Hessel eventually got a formal restraining order against Thornton, but at the time still did not think he was dangerous. One day, Hessel left work to lunch with a friend as Thornton was picketing on the sidewalk. “He just had this look about him. There was a smile on his face but it was almost a sneer. His eyes—like I’ve told people, during the shooting he had eyes like a shark. No emotion. Very menacing. My friend said, ‘Are you concerned about this guy?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’ve known him a long time, he’s a goof, but I don’t think he’ll do anything.”

As Hessel tells the story, he remembers how Thornton’s behavior became increasingly bizarre, and increasingly compartmentalized. “He’d be picketing in front of the building and then say, ‘Hello Mr. Hessel! How are you today?’ And I’d say, ‘Cookie. You’re really going to greet me while you’re calling me a liar?’ That’s just what he did. I—I don’t know what it was. That’s why I did not see it coming.” Most everyone said something along the lines of, “That’s just Cookie being Cookie.”

Sarah wonders what may have happened if he had had an attorney to work with him on his cases, someone to talk him through the facts and possible outcomes, or a real mentor.

“They looked at him as a pest, because he was constantly suing someone. But I see it in my work, when people are wronged and I’m sure they’re going to win their case, and it doesn’t happen and then they’re back. And I think, ‘How did that happen?’ So I can only imagine being on the City Hall side of it and thinking, ‘Here comes Charles Thornton with another crazy lawsuit.’ Because you’re used to the same old thing with that person. I can understand both sides of the issue.” On January 28, 2008, Thornton’s last free speech lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Perry. “Plaintiff shall bear all taxable costs of this action,” the judge wrote.

 

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The morning after the shooting, Sarah remembers her mother’s strange, urgent request that she watch the news. “She just said, ‘I want you to watch something.’ And it was the local news in West Palm Beach. She just kept telling me to watch it. At that point I was a little nervous.” She kept asking her mother if something had happened, if it was someone in their immediate family, if someone had died. “If that had happened, I couldn’t figure out why it would be on the national news. And then it came up—and it was him.”

The most shocked of all, Sarah recalls, was her mother. The unidentifiable combination that had been festering within him, which could have many names, created someone neither of them recognized.

“I knew that my mother would never have married someone who was like that. I felt not only for him, but the people he hurt. The families, the friends, the people who live there. It’s hard to fathom. His name is all over the internet, articles everywhere. It’s never something that you want to accept or prepare for. It’s just always there. It’s never going to go away.”

On January 28, 2008, Thornton’s last free speech lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Perry. “Plaintiff shall bear all taxable costs of this action,” the judge wrote.

Sergeant William Biggs was on duty the night of February 7, 2008 and was preparing to walk to Imo’s Pizza to pick up dinner when Thornton apprehended him in the parking lot of City Hall, shot him twice in the head with a Smith and Wesson .44 caliber revolver, and then took his Smith and Wesson .40 caliber semi-automatic. Employees still remember the time he called in his pizza order. Miraculously, Biggs had been able to activate the emergency alert tone from his portable radio before he died.

Ron Whitehead, an unarmed security guard stationed at Kirkwood City Hall, was on duty that night when Thornton came in. Whitehead saw Thornton drive up in his old blue and white model ambulance, which still displayed red emergency lights. Whitehead knew Thornton was known to be disruptive in meetings, so he immediately went upstairs and alerted police officer Tom Ballman that Thornton had arrived on the premises. He remembers Ballman nodding. On his way back down, Thornton, who had already killed Sergeant Biggs, was running up the steps carrying a large poster board. Whitehead heard him say, “Good God almighty,” and proceed up the steps.

Hessel was at the City Council meeting the night of February 7, 2008, a cold day around 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside. The Council had started a public hearing that evening and Hessel was busily introducing records into the transcript. He did not immediately see Thornton come in, but he heard his voice, shouting something. Looking up, he saw him carrying his large white poster board signs with messages written in black marker, as always. As soon as Hessel looked up, Thornton dropped the poster board and Hessel saw him with two guns in his hand.

“And then, ‘Bam!’ It sounded like a cannon went off,” Hessel describes. “I can still smell the gunpowder. That’s when Tom Ballman’s head slumped over. Then he turned and shot Ken Yost.” Hessel immediately ducked under the dais for protection, and saw Mayor Swoboda walk towards Thornton. He heard more shots, and then saw Swoboda fall, bleeding from the head. To his right, Hessel heard more shots, and they were getting closer. “He was going about it very meticulously, killing unarmed innocent people. It wasn’t random shootings. He went one by one and shot people. I think his goal was to wipe out the City Council. And me.”

Hessel got up from under the dais and ran, but saw Thornton chasing after him. When Thornton was about four feet from him, aiming both guns at him, Hessel instinctively picked up a chair and threw it at him, momentarily disabling Thornton and pointing the guns away. Then he threw another chair at him as hard as he could, and another. The attempt to escape required him to step over Yost’s body, which Thornton tripped over, securing Hessel’s escape to safety. As he ran out, two responding officers were hurriedly racing up the steps, and moments later Thornton was dead. “I think about the things Ken Yost wanted to say to his wife. Tom Ballman, to his kids. You never have that. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance to say, ‘I’m sorry,’” says Hessel.

The most shocked of all, Sarah recalls, was her mother. The unidentifiable combination that had been festering within him, which could have many names, created someone neither of them recognized.

He met with psychiatrists afterward to help process the trauma, and to stop nightmares he had been having. In his search for peace, Hessel came across a series of books aimed at helping police officers and those in the military deal with atrocities. “It ain’t easy. But the book was very helpful, because all the stuff I was feeling, all the emotions I was going through were normal. It was ok.”

One minute and 13 seconds after Thornton’s first shot, two Kirkwood police officers, Stephen Geyer and Paul Faulstich, responded to the scene. According to the police report, as they walked up the stairs they were met with panicked residents frantically running from the council chamber, screaming that people were being shot. Upon entering the chamber they saw Thornton discharging his gun, aiming it towards someone on the floor. He then lifted it, aiming it at the police officers. Geyer immediately shot Thornton. Faulstich observed that Thornton stood there for a moment as if nothing had happened. Faulstich fired two rounds, taking cover behind a door. Geyer also fired off two more rounds at Thornton. Finally, he crumpled into a fetal position on his side. Thornton went down, but Geyer did not know if he was taking cover or was dead. It was only when he was handcuffed that the remaining survivors began telling each other, “He’s down. It’s ok to come out.”

According to an investigative report by the St. Louis County Police Department, Detectives Joseph Nickerson and John Bradley first happened upon Sergeant William Biggs laying on his back in the parking lot, dead. He was dressed in his police uniform, feet pointed towards the west, and his face looked east. As the detectives walked up the stairs towards the council chamber, they noticed blood spatters along the walls. The victims and suspect were pronounced dead at 7:10 pm, and all had “through and through” gunshot wounds, or entry and exit wounds, shot at a close range. Police Officer Tom Ballman, whom Thornton had shot first, was still seated in his chair underneath an oil portrait of Mayor Swoboda, who had been rushed to the hospital following two gunshot wounds to the head, in unstable critical condition. Director of Public Works Ken Yost was lying on the floor on his right side, with two puncture wounds to the head.

Councilmember Mike Lynch, who was lying on the floor underneath the dias, was found on his stomach. He had sustained two puncture wounds to the head, and a pair of glasses lay next to him. Tim Griffin, the current mayor of Kirkwood, was at the City Council meeting that night and hid for cover behind the dais. He remembers seeing Thornton point a gun at Lynch, who pleaded, “Cookie, please don’t.” Thornton shot him at point-blank range. Detectives then found Connie Karr lying behind the dais, face down on her stomach. She had one puncture wound in the middle of her back between her shoulders and what appeared to be her left cheek, though it was later determined she was shot at such close range that the gunshot to her back traveled from the right side of her upper back, through her neck, and exited out through her cheek. She wore black pants, black shoes, and a black sweater, but with a black-and-white blazer, and her name tag affixed to its side.

Lastly, they found Thornton, lying on the floor underneath the dais on his left side. He had been shot on the left side of his face near his lip, and had a through and through gunshot wound injuring his abdomen. He wore black jeans with red-and-white stitching, a black-and-red shirt, black leather jacket, black socks, and black shoes. He had on a shoulder holster, and each of his wrists wore a pair of handcuffs.

Thornton had also chosen to wear a hat that day, the color black, which was found near his body.

  • Fascinating article – I recall this happening but never really knew the details. Racism is a complicated factor in our society – it’s overt impacts on minorities are obvious, but the ways it affects the thinking of non-minorities, while more subtle, are no less impactful.