Six dead after Kirkwood City Council shooting

Friday, February 8, 2008 | 8:42 a.m. CST; updated 1:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Police officers surround the shooting scene outside Kirkwood City Hall at the corner of Madison and Kirkwood Roads in Kirkwood, Mo. A gunman opened fire at a city council meeting in this St. Louis suburb, hitting the mayor and several city officials, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

KIRKWOOD, Mo. – Ten days after losing a federal lawsuit against this St. Louis suburb he insisted harassed him, a gunman stormed a council meeting, yelled "Shoot the mayor!" and opened fire, killing two police officers and three city officials, authorities and witnesses said.

The gunman, identified as Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, critically injured the city's mayor and wounded a reporter Thursday night before law enforcers fatally shot him.


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"The only way that I can put into context that you might understand is that my brother went to war tonight with the people, the government that was putting torment and strife into his life," Thornton's brother, Gerald Thornton, told KMOV-TV of St. Louis.

Tracy Panus, a St. Louis County Police spokeswoman, said the names of the victims would not be released until a news conference Friday morning.

But the wounded included Mayor Mike Swoboda, who was in critical condition Friday morning in the intensive-care unit of St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur, hospital spokesman Lynne Beck said. Another victim, Suburban Journals newspaper reporter Todd Smith, was in satisfactory condition Friday, Beck said.

Hospital spokespeople would not elaborate on either patient's injuries.

On Friday, yellow police tape circled the entire block that includes City Hall, delineating as a crime scene the site that still was drawing police officers and cars from various jurisdictions in the region. An impromptu memorial was growing on the City Hall's steps, where balloons and flowers were placed in memory of the victims.

Panus said the gunman killed one officer outside City Hall, then walked into the council chambers, shot another and continued pulling the trigger.

Janet McNichols, a reporter covering the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told the newspaper the meeting had just started when the shooter opened fire. He started yelling about shooting the mayor while walking around and firing, hitting police Officer Tom Ballman in the head, she said.

The shooter then went after Public Works Director Kenneth Yost, who was sitting in front of Swoboda, and shot Yost in the head, McNichols said.

She also said the shooter fired at City Attorney John Hessel, who tried to fight off the attacker by throwing chairs. The shooter then moved behind the desk where the council sits and fired more shots at council members.

"We crawled under the chairs and just laid there," McNichols told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday. "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."

Witness Alan Hopefl told CNN that Thornton was a frequent visitor at council meetings and would be disruptive, sometimes making donkey noises. Hopefl said he was there when the shooting erupted Thursday.

"They just opened up a public hearing, and the attorney was reading the document into the record when Mr. Thornton entered the room, went down one side of the room up to the police officer who's normally there, pulled the gun out, shot the police officer, and then he proceeded to move toward the front of the council," Hopefl said.

The newspaper quoted McNichols as saying Swoboda, and council members Michael H.T. Lynch and Connie Karr also were hit. She identified the gunman as Charles Thornton, whom she knows from covering the council.

Thornton was often a contentious presence at it meetings; he had twice been convicted of disorderly conduct for disrupting meetings in May 2006.

Most of his ire was directed at the mayor and Yost, McNichols said.

The weekly Webster-Kirkwood Times quoted Swoboda as saying in June 2006 that Thornton's contentious remarks over the years created "one of the most embarrassing situations that I have experienced in my many years of public service."

The mayor's comments came during a meeting attended by Thornton two weeks after he was forcibly removed from the chambers. Swoboda had said the council considered banning Thornton from future meetings but decided against it.

Thornton said during the meeting he had been issued more than 150 tickets.

In a federal lawsuit stemming from his arrests 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 suit Jan. 28, writing that "any restrictions on Thornton's speech were reasonable, viewpoint neutral, and served important governmental interests."

Gerald Thornton told KMOV the legal setback may have been his brother's final straw. "He has (spoken) on it as best he could in the courts, and they denied all rights to the access of protection and he took it upon himself to go to war and end the issue," he said.

Kirkwood is about 20 miles southwest of downtown St. Louis. City Hall is in a quiet area filled with condominiums, eateries and shops, not far from a dance studio and train station.

The police department's chaplain said law enforcers from several agencies were anguished over the shootings.

"They're all just so sad, shocked by this," said Father Robert Osborne of St. Peter Catholic Church. "This doesn't happen in Kirkwood."

Despite its reputation locally for serenity, the city has grappled in recent years with crimes that brought it unwanted attention.

Down the street from City Hall is the Imo's pizzeria once managed by Michael Devlin, who kidnapped 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck in 2002 and held him for four years before authorities rescued him in January 2007. Also rescued was Ben Ownby, another teenager Devlin abducted just days before Devlin's arrest.

Those crimes got Devlin life terms on state charges, as well as 170 years behind bars on federal charges that he made pornography.

City Hall also is about a block from a park now named for former Kirkwood police Sgt. William McEntee, who was a 43-year-old father of three when he was slain in 2005 by a man who witnesses said blamed police for the death of his 12-year-old half-brother two hours earlier.

Kevin Johnson was convicted in November of first-degree murder and last week was sentenced to death.

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Rachel Brekhus February 8, 2008 | 11:45 a.m.

Wow. It would not surprise me if this shooter is mentally ill and his belief that the city council is "tormenting" him stems from the demons in his own mind. The pattern of behavior (constant and disruptive presence at meetings, including making strange noises, an obsession with public figures' perceived relationship with him, nuisance type arrests that escalate) seems consistent with that explanation.

See the Preventable Tragedies site for a huge database full of incidents in which mentally ill people who are allowed to roam the streets, untreated, have committed violence.

Most mentally ill people are not violent, but some violent people are mentally ill. Even most mentally ill people who do become violent would not become violent if they received consistent treatment, including medication, that stop the disturbed thinking that makes violence seem like something they "have to do."

Our laws make it far too hard to compel mentally ill people to take medication or be hospitalized. These laws that more sense in times when less was known about mental illness, and medical treatments were fewer and less effective than today - when mental hospitals were no more than warehouses, or worse.

What seems really strange to me is that the brother has either bought into this man's delusional thinking, or for some other reason does not want to say or admit or believe that his brother is insane.

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