KIRKWOOD — No one may ever know what drove Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton to shoot and kill five people at a City Council meeting in this St. Louis suburb. Even those who knew him best were stunned.
But Thornton’s family and friends — black and white — say a history of strained race relations between mostly white Kirkwood and the historically black neighborhood known as Meacham Park might hint at what pushed him over the edge.
“He was a black man in a white community,” said Jim Hollinshead, 46, a white businessman who went to high school with Thornton and remained his friend. “They started ticketing him for everything, and in my opinion, abused their authority. It festered and never got right. He had no way to find justice.”
“Does that excuse him killing all those people?” Hollinshead asked. “No, but I don’t think he felt he had another way out.”
City Attorney John Hessel survived the Thursday night attack by throwing chairs at Thornton, telling him, “Don’t do this Cookie. I’m not going to let you kill me.”
Hessel said Thornton’s actions had nothing to do with being oppressed. Thornton, he said, was solely to blame.
“Cookie had a very jaded view of what was going on, and he couldn’t find anybody that agreed with him,” Hessel said. “He has to look in the mirror, and say, ‘I’m the one who’s the problem.”’
Thornton, who owned a demolition and paving business, had amassed as much as $20,000 in parking and permit citations from the city. Family and friends said police also arrested his crews at job sites for minor infractions. The city denies it.
The mounting tickets, and his refusal to pay them out of principle, kept him from getting contracting jobs, Thornton’s 83-year-old mother, Annie Thornton, said.
He raged at City Council meetings over the years and accused officials of having a racist “plantation mentality.”
His outbursts 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, Thornton, 52, left his home with a note on his pillow: “The truth will come out in the end.”
As he neared City Hall he saw police officer William Biggs and shot him, then took the dying officer’s service revolver and proceeded toward the City Council meeting already in progress.
Witnesses said Thornton walked toward officer Tom Ballman and shot him to death, then moved toward the front of the room, where he killed council members Michael H.T. Lynch and Connie Karr, along with Public Works Director Kenneth Yost. Thornton also shot Mayor Mike Swoboda twice in the head, and Suburban Journals newspaper reporter Todd Smith in the hand. Swoboda is in critical condition. Smith is in satisfactory condition.
More than a decade ago, the city annexed Meacham Park and leveled 55 acres for a shopping development, replacing modest homes and public housing with pricier dwellings. Some black residents thought the move tore out the heart of their community. Many moved away.
“It was a terrible situation, not good,” said Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, which has been working to repair relationships.
Thornton planned to do much of the demolition work for the development, but in the end, only tore down a few houses and did some minor paving work.
“They promised him a larger role, and he didn’t get what he was promised,” his younger brother, Arthur Thornton, 42, said. “He was the only contractor from the neighborhood. One of the promises was that they were going to give work to people living in the neighborhood and the contractors in the neighborhood.”
Race relations in Kirkwood worsened in 2005, when white Kirkwood police Sgt. William McEntee was gunned down by a young black man from Meacham Park. Just last week, Kevin Johnson, now 22, was sentenced to death.
Patton, 56, said the Meacham Park neighborhood had been working hard “to develop positive images” of black residents and address racial tension with Kirkwood city officials at “sit-down dialogue” sessions. Swoboda attended one of their events last month.
At a Meacham Park meeting Friday, people cried, prayed and discussed racial divisions. A few defended Thornton; many decried his actions.
Hessel traces Thornton’s anger with the city to just after it started tightening code enforcement in Meacham Park in the late 1990s. Thornton received warnings first, then tickets and citations for doing work without a permit, illegally dumping demolition debris and parking his trucks illegally.
Hessel said the city even offered to waive the fines, but Thornton wanted Yost to apologize or be fired.
“We didn’t want money from Cookie or to have him in jail, but there are rules that had to be followed,” he said.
Karr and other council members urged city administrators to find a way to appease Thornton, and they tried, Hessel said.
“Nobody wanted to pick a fight with Cookie.”