Kirkwood begins healing process

Monday, February 11, 2008 | 2:22 p.m. CST; updated 8:52 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

KIRKWOOD — The bullet holes and blood stains are gone. Kirkwood’s City Council chamber has new drywall and molding, fresh paint, a new desk. The business of the city will resume soon. Townspeople are going on about their lives after a weekend of mourning.

Things may never be the same in this suburban St. Louis town. But slowly, the healing process is beginning in a community forever changed after Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton’s Thursday night rampage that killed two police officers, two members of the city council and the St. Louis suburb’s longtime public works director before officers gunned Thornton down.

Carpenters and painters spent the weekend fixing the scene of the massacre. City Hall, closed since the shooting, is scheduled to reopen Tuesday with limited hours — city workers were given Monday and parts of Tuesday and Wednesday off to attend funerals for the victims.

Outside City Hall, visitors continue to leave flowers, balloons and notes expressing sorrow. Flags around the St. Louis region on Monday were still at half-staff. Signs in windows of several businesses read, “Kirkwood Stands Together, Grieves Together, Heals Together.”

For 67-year-old resident Noel Barrett, things are still a long way from normal.

“Life goes on, but it’s there in the back of your mind,” she said.

At Monday’s memorial service, hundreds gathered at First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood to remember public works director Ken Yost, 61, who began working for Kirkwood in 1973 and served as public works director for more than 20 years.

Yost and his wife, Cathy, had two sons, one of whom died at age 20 while he was in college. The couple was active in the church, including organizing three mission trips to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Funerals for officer Tom Ballman and councilman Michael Lynch are Tuesday. Services for councilwoman Connie Karr and officer William Biggs Jr. are Wednesday.

Thornton’s arrangements have not been announced.

Around Kirkwood, people continue to rally around the victims’ families, and each other.

On Sunday, volunteers braved near-zero wind chill to operate a hot chocolate stand at a busy intersection. The goal: Raise money for the families of the two police officers killed in the shooting.

The gesture was similar to one in Kirkwood in the summer of 2005, after police Sgt. William McEntee was shot to death. A lemonade stand raised nearly $40,000 for McEntee’s family.

Ballman’s family issued a statement expressing thanks for the “outpouring of love and concern.”

The statement said it is “hard to understand how to begin to heal from this tragic, senseless act of violence. For our family, just knowing that there are so many wonderful people praying for us and sending us their heartfelt wishes are what will help carry us through this tragedy.”

Mayor Mike Swoboda remained in critical condition at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center. He was shot twice, one bullet entering near the temple and exiting the other side of the face, the second grazing the back of his head. His chances for a recovery have been described as “touch and go” by family friend Tom Noonan.

Thornton, 52, had a long and contentious relationship with city officials. Among other issues, he ran up about $20,000 in parking fines. Relatives have said Thornton, who owned a small contracting company, was also upset that jobs with the city had failed to materialize.

Thornton often appeared at council meetings, criticizing the elected officials. He was arrested twice inside City Hall for disorderly conduct, including once when he called the mayor a “jackass.”

Thornton even filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that his free-speech rights were violated because of the arrests. Last month, a judge threw out the suit, saying the city acted reasonably.

On Thursday, Thornton left a note on his bed that read, “The truth will come out in the end.”

He first shot and killed Biggs outside City Hall, then burst into a council meeting that had just begun, shooting and killing Ballman, Yost, Karr and Lynch and injuring Swoboda and Todd Smith, a Suburban Journals newspaper reporter who was shot in the hand. Smith has been released from the hospital.

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