KIRKWOOD, Mo. – This tightly knit suburban community is struggling to heal this weekend even as police try to figure out the motives of a man who shot and killed five people at a City Council meeting.
Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton had a long history of fighting with city officials over a litany of code violations, fines and citations. Police searched his house Thursday night after the shooting spree and removed placards with protest slogans written on them that Thornton often carried to City Hall, said Thornton's brother Arthur Thornton.
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St. Louis County Police spokeswoman Tracy Panus said authorities are still trying to piece together the details of Thornton's spree and could not comment in detail.
Residents of Kirkwood came to grips with the tragedy in their own way. On Friday afternoon residents heaped flowers, balloons and memorials on the steps of City Hall. Many gathered at a midday prayer vigil at the United Methodist Church, where a bell tolled six times — once for each of the dead — as mourners held white candles.
"This is such an incredible shock to all of us. It's a tragedy of untold magnitude," Deputy Mayor Tim Griffin said at a news conference. "The business of the city will continue and we will recover, but we will never be the same."
Over the years, Thornton racked up thousands of dollars in parking tickets and citations. The asphalt company owner raged at meetings over the years that he was being persecuted, mocking city officials as "jackasses" and accusing them of having a racist "plantation mentality."
His outbursts at the meetings 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, he left his home and headed to one more City Council meeting, carrying a loaded gun. On his bed back home, his younger brother Arthur said he found a note that read: "The truth will come out in the end."
Before he was shot to death by police, Thornton, 52, killed two policemen, Tom Ballman and William Biggs; council members Michael H.T. Lynch and Connie Karr; and Director of Public Works Kenneth Yost.
Mayor Mike Swoboda was hospitalized in critical condition with gunshot wounds, and a newspaper reporter covering the meeting, Todd Smith of Suburban Journals, was in satisfactory condition.
Thornton's dispute with City Hall had been escalating since the late 1990s, when he "was promised" a large amount of construction work on a development near his home, said 42-year-old Arthur Thornton. The vast majority of work went to other contractors, he said.
"They just gave him what I'd call the scraps," Arthur Thornton said.
Standing in front of City Hall, where piles of flowers and balloons served as a tribute to the victims, another brother, Gerald Thornton added: "They denied all rights to the access of protection and he took it upon himself to go to war and end the issue."
Thornton's first shooting victim was Biggs, who was on duty outside City Hall, then walked into the council chambers carrying one of the slain officer's pistols to continue the rampage.
After the Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the start of the meeting, Thornton then squeezed off shot after shot. At one point, he yelled "Shoot the mayor!" before he was shot to death by police.
"We crawled under the chairs and just laid there," reporter Janet McNichols, who was covering the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said in a video interview on the newspaper's Web site. "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."
The shooting brought a violent end to a feud that had gone back years.
Thornton had developed an especially tense relationship with Yost, his brother Arthur said. Yost would often complain that Thornton was parking his commercial vehicles in residential neighborhoods. Some were parked in Thornton's driveway, some in a lot across the street.
Charles Thornton received roughly 150 tickets over the years, and would often complain about the treatment at City Council meetings. He called the fines against him a "slave tax," according to accounts of the meetings in the town's paper, The Webster-Kirkwood Times.
He was cuffed and dragged from council chambers, and the council considered banning him permanently after that meeting. Ultimately, the group decided that while his behavior was disruptive, he had a right to be there.
In a federal lawsuit stemming from his arrests for disorderly conduct 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."