Some left flowers, balloons and memorials on the steps of City Hall. Others gathered at a prayer vigil where a bell tolled six times as mourners clutched white candles.
Residents of this St. Louis suburb struggled to heal as they tried to make sense of a shooting spree at a City Council meeting that left five people dead and the mayor fighting for his life.
“This is such an incredible shock to all of us. It’s a tragedy of untold magnitude,” Deputy Mayor Tim Griffin said at a news conference Friday. “The business of the city will continue and we will recover, but we will never be the same.”
Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton had a long history of fighting with city officials over a litany of code violations, fines and citations. Police searched his house Thursday night after the rampage and removed placards containing protest slogans that Thornton often carried to City Hall, his brother said.
Police piecing together details
St. Louis County Police spokeswoman Tracy Panus said authorities were still trying to piece together the details of the attack.
Over the years, Thornton racked up thousands of dollars in parking tickets and citations. The asphalt company owner raged at council meetings that he was being persecuted, mocking city officials as “jackasses” and accusing them of having a racist “plantation mentality.”
His outbursts got him arrested twice on disorderly conduct charges, and he filed a free speech lawsuit against Kirkwood, but lost the case last month.
On Thursday night, he left his home and headed to one more City Council meeting, carrying a loaded gun. On his bed back home, his younger brother Arthur said he found a note that read: “The truth will come out in the end.”
Mayor in critical condition
Before he was shot to death by police, Thornton, 52, killed two policemen, Tom Ballman and William Biggs; council members Michael H.T. Lynch and Connie Karr; and Director of Public Works Kenneth Yost.
Mayor Mike Swoboda was hospitalized in critical condition with gunshot wounds, and a newspaper reporter covering the meeting, Todd Smith of Suburban Journals, was in satisfactory condition.
Thornton’s dispute with City Hall had been escalating since the late 1990s, when he “was promised” a large amount of construction work on a development near his home, said Arthur Thornton, 42. The vast majority of work went to other contractors, he said.
“They just gave him what I’d call the scraps,” Arthur Thornton said.
Standing in front of City Hall, another brother, Gerald Thornton added: “They denied all rights to the access of protection and he took it upon himself to go to war and end the issue.”
Thornton’s first shooting victim was Biggs, who was on duty outside City Hall, then walked into the council chambers carrying one of the slain officer’s pistols to continue the rampage.
After the Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the start of the meeting, Thornton then squeezed off shot after shot. At one point, he yelled “Shoot the mayor!” before he was shot to death by police.
“We crawled under the chairs and just laid there,” reporter Janet McNichols, who was covering the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said in a video interview on the newspaper’s Web site. “We heard Cookie shooting, and then we heard some shouting, and the police, the Kirkwood police, had heard what was going on, and they ran in, and they shot him.”
Feud went back years
The shooting brought a violent end to a feud that had gone back years.
Thornton had developed an especially tense relationship with Yost, Arthur Thornton said. Yost would often complain that Thornton was parking his commercial vehicles in residential neighborhoods. Some were parked in Thornton’s driveway, some in a lot across the street.
Charles Thornton received roughly 150 tickets over the years, and would often complain about the treatment at City Council meetings. He called the fines against him a “slave tax,” according to accounts of the meetings in the town’s paper, The Webster-Kirkwood Times.
He was cuffed and dragged from council chambers, and the council considered banning him permanently after that meeting. Ultimately, the group decided that while his behavior was disruptive, he had a right to be there.
In a federal lawsuit stemming from his arrests for disorderly conduct during two meetings just weeks apart, Thornton insisted that Kirkwood officials violated his constitutional rights to free speech by barring him from speaking at the meetings.
But a judge in St. Louis tossed out the lawsuit Jan. 28, writing that “any restrictions on Thornton’s speech were reasonable, viewpoint neutral, and served important governmental interests.”