Charles Lee Thornton
|“||The truth will come out in the end.||„|
|~ Thornton in a suicide note left before the shooting.|
Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton (December 23, 1955 – February 7, 2008) was an American mass murderer who perpetrated a shooting at the Kirkwood City Hall on February 7, 2008, during a meeting of the city council in Kirkwood, Missouri. He killed six people and injured two others, include Mayor Mike Swoboda, before he was killed by responding police officers. His motive for committing the shooting was reportedly because he believed that his construction company had been denied construction contracts for racially biased reasons.
Thornton was a lifelong resident of Meacham Park in St. Louis County, Missouri. In 1992, a ballot proposition appeared under which Kirkwood, an abutting, comparatively prosperous city with only a small percentage of African-American residents, would annex the low-income Meacham Park area. After spirited debate and campaigning, residents of both Meacham Park and Kirkwood approved the annexation. Upon annexation, the municipal codes of Kirkwood became the law for Meacham Park, which had previously lacked municipal codes due to its unincorporated status.
During the 1990s, Thornton was active in a number of civic and charitable organizations in Kirkwood. He ran for Kirkwood City Council in 1994, unsuccessfully.
Via eminent domain, part of the Meacham Park area was taken for a large commercial development in the late 1990s in a tax increment financing project. Thornton, who foresaw that his construction company would get contracts in this development, was a public proponent of it, in this respect opposing the views of some others in Meacham Park.
He sought and received some work for his construction company during this commercial development. Family members and friends have said that he became resentful over having gotten less than he felt he had been promised. In 1999, Thornton filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging racial discrimination in the awarding of contracts he had wanted. Marge Schramm, who was mayor at the time the contracts were bid, has said that contracts were awarded by the developers, not the city, and that the city had not promised contracts to Thornton. It has been reported that he had never actually bid on the contracts.
In 1996, Thornton had begun receiving citations from Kirkwood for violations of city codes. In June 1998, he pleaded guilty to six violations; and agreed to a five-phase plan to bring his property and his paving business into conformance with city codes within two years.
However, this plan was not fulfilled, and Thornton began to leave new tickets unpaid. By late 2001, Thornton had been cited many dozens more times by Kirkwood officials under municipal code enforcement actions for operating an unlicensed business from his home, in a (since the 1992 annexation) residentially-zoned incorporated area; illegal dumping; destruction of property; parking his construction company's equipment near his home as he had always done; and for numerous other municipal code violations. Kirkwood said in a state court memorandum in 2003 that by May 2002, multiple trials in city and county courts had concluded with Thornton pleading guilty to, or being found guilty of, more than 100 of 114 charges. Charges were dropped, or Thornton was found not guilty, on at least a dozen other charges. Thornton said later in federal court, and at Kirkwood city council meetings, that he had received more than 150 tickets. Courts ordered that he pay nearly twenty thousand dollars in fines and court costs. Links to files showing scanned copies of most of the citations have been placed on-line as part of an investigative story by a local television station.
Thornton filed for bankruptcy in December 1999. During the bankruptcy process, he was put on a plan to get out of debt: he would pay $4,425 a month for five years. But Thornton stopped making the payments within four months, and moved the portion of his business that had for a while occupied a rental property in a nearby commercially zoned area, back into his residentially zoned neighborhood.
Thornton never paid any of the fines from the Kirkwood code violation cases concluded in 2001 and 2002. Instead, he appeared regularly at city council meetings complaining of persecution, fraud and coverup by city officials. In 2003, he had signs on the side of his van, in which he vowed he would never again "accept lies from the city of Kirkwood".
Thornton also repeatedly sued the city and Kirkwood public works director Ken Yost in state court unsuccessfully during a period of several years in the early 2000s. From around 2004 onward Thornton, despite having no education, training or experience in the practice of law, acted as his own attorney. In 2005, the Missouri Court of Appeals opinion dismissing his suit against Kirkwood and Ken Yost for malicious prosecution and civil rights violations termed his brief "largely incomprehensible". After several years of the lawsuits, he declined an offer from the city to let his fines remain unpaid in exchange for dropping his last lawsuit against the city and no longer disrupting council meetings.
Thornton parked his van on the side street near Kirkwood City Hall and saw Kirkwood Police Sgt. William Biggs, who was on duty but walking to pick up dinner nearby. In a parking lot across the side street from City Hall, Thornton confronted Biggs and shot him with a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver, killing him instantly. Before Thornton fired, Biggs had hit a distress signal on his radio to summon additional police officers.
Thornton took Biggs' Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun and went inside City Hall. There, in the city council chambers, The Pledge of Allegiance had just been recited and the mayor was starting the city council meeting with 30 people attending. Thornton entered the room quietly from the back with both of his weapons concealed but soon got close to his intended victims. He first fatally shot Kirkwood Police Officer Tom Ballman in the head and continued shooting other victims at close range while reportedly repeating the phrase "Shoot the mayor!" He fatally shot council members Connie Karr and Michael H.T. Lynch, and Public Works Director Ken Yost. He shot Mayor Mike Swoboda twice in the head and left him for dead. Witnesses reported about 15 gunshots. Ignoring the four other council members, Thornton chased City Attorney John Hessel, who slowed Thornton by throwing chairs at him until escaping from the room.
All of this gunfire was audible at the Kirkwood police department building, located across a small parking lot from the rear entrance to city hall. Two Kirkwood police officers rushed to the council chambers. There, Thornton fired on them from behind a desk. The officers returned fire; Thornton, who still had rounds left, sustained two gunshot wounds and died at the scene.