Missouri gunman had history of disputes with city hall

February 8, 2008 8:22:18 PM PST
Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton always seemed to be fighting City Hall.

Even before he shot and killed five people at a City Council meeting, thousands of dollars in parking tickets and citations piled up against the asphalt company owner. He raged at meetings over the years that he was being persecuted, mocking city officials as "jackasses" and accusing them of having a racist "plantation mentality."

His outbursts at the meetings got him arrested twice on disorderly conduct charges, and he filed a free speech lawsuit against the St. Louis suburb, 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 said he found a note that read: "The truth will come out in the end."

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.

Residents of Kirkwood, about 20 miles southwest of downtown St. Louis, gathered at a midday prayer vigil Friday at the United Methodist Church, where a bell tolled six times - once for each of the dead - as mourners held white candles.

"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. "The business of the city will continue and we will recover, but we will never be the same."

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, his younger brother. 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, where piles of flowers and balloons served as a tribute to the victims, 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."

The shooting brought a violent end to a feud that had gone back years.

Thornton had developed an especially tense relationship with Yost, his brother Arthur 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.

Soon police began ticketing the vehicles, and Yost would drive by work sites to remind Thornton he could only store commercial equipment in designated areas, the brother said.

Yost "would ride by and say: 'You need to move this and you need to move that,' and we did it," Arthur Thornton recalled.

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.

"Once again, (these are) acts from a jackass from a corrupt city council," the newspaper quoted him telling the council at a meeting in May 18, 2006.

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."

Friends and family said he had grown increasingly frustrated in his fight. But many also said they didn't understand how he could have been capable of such violence, describing him as full of love, churchgoing, and nonviolent.

"He was a pivotal part of the community," said 30-year-old Charles Runnels, who was given a job by Thornton installing air conditioning units and doing landscaping. "We just were line-dancing the other night."

Longtime friend Franklin McCallie said Thornton once told him that the city would drop the fines if he "would just follow the law."

"In our long talks, I begged him to do this," McCallie said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "But Cookie said it was a matter of principle with him and that he wanted to sue the city for millions of dollars."

McCallie said the rampage was "a brutal and inexcusable act, the act of a person who was not in his right mind when he did it."

Charles Thornton was one of nine children raised in the family home in Meacham Park, a historically black neighborhood in Kirkwood. The surrounding suburb is predominantly white. Popular in high school, he was a track standout at then Northeast Missouri State University in the late 1970s. His school records for indoor and outdoor high jump set in 1979 still stand.

In the hours before the shooting spree, Thornton was helping to organize a fish fry to help pay the cost of a friend's funeral, said his mother, 83-year-old Annie Thornton. Before he left for the council meeting, he hugged her and stopped to speak.

"'To God be the glory. I love you all. I'll see you later,"' she recalled him saying.


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