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Kirkwood gunman left suicide note, brother says

Friday, February 8, 2008 | 10:35 a.m. CST; updated 12:12 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 — A gunman carrying a grudge against city hall left a suicide note on his bed warning “The truth will come out in the end,” before he went on a deadly shooting spree at a council meeting, his brother told The Associated Press on Friday.

Arthur Thornton, 42, said that he knew his brother was responsible for the killings when he read the one-line note.

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“It looks like my brother is going crazy, but he’s just trying to get people’s attention,” Thornton said, explaining he believed the note reflected his brother’s growing frustration with local leaders.

After storming the meeting and killing five people Thursday night, Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton was fatally shot by law enforcers. Friends and relatives said he had a long-standing feud with the city.

Thornton stormed the City Council meeting and opened fire with a handgun he brought, then used a slain officer’s pistol to further the rampage, police said Friday.

Thornton also managed to critically wound the mayor and a reporter during Thursday night’s rampage before police shot him dead.

The shooting came 10 days after Thornton lost a free-speech lawsuit against this suburb. The gunman stormed the council meeting, yelled “Shoot the mayor!” and opened fire.

“This is such an incredible shock to all of us. It’s a tragedy of untold magnitude,” Tim Griffin, Kirkwood’s deputy mayor, said at a news conference Friday. “The business of the city will continue, and we will recover but we will never be the same. The healing process starts now.”

The city had ticketed Thornton’s demolition and asphalt business, Cookco Construction, for parking his commercial vehicles in the neighborhood, said Ron Hodges, a friend who lives in the community. Thornton had said at previous meetings he had received 150 tickets. The tickets were “eating at him,” Hodges said.

“He felt that as a black contractor he was being singled out,” said Hodges, who is black. “I guess he thought mentally he had no more recourse. That’s not an excuse.”

The meeting had just started when the shooter opened fire, said Janet McNichols, a reporter covering the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The gunman killed one officer outside city hall, then walked into the council chambers, shot another and continued pulling the trigger, St. Louis County Police Spokeswoman Tracy Panus said Friday. Thornton fired shots and hit Mayor Mike Swoboda. Officer Tom Ballman was shot in the head, McNichols said.

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

As he fired at City Attorney John Hessel, Hessel tried to fight off the attacker by throwing chairs, McNichols said. 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.”

McNichols told the Post-Dispatch that council members Michael H.T. Lynch and Connie Karr also were hit. She identified the gunman as Thornton, whom she knows from covering the council.

Swoboda 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.

Yellow police tape circled the entire block that includes city hall. An impromptu memorial was growing on the city hall’s steps, where balloons and flowers were placed in memory of the victims.

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

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.

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 lawsuit Jan. 28, writing that “any restrictions on Thornton’s speech were reasonable, viewpoint neutral, and served important governmental interests.”

Gerald Thornton said 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.

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 The Rev. Robert Osborne of St. Peter Catholic Church. “This doesn’t happen in Kirkwood.”

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. 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.


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