Harris "Hit The Floor" When Shootings Began

Times Reporter's Eyewitness Account

From left, husband and wife Sandy and Gerald Chambers, with Janet Ovory, all from Sunset Hills, at Friday night’s candlelight vigil at Station Plaza. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
02/15/2008 - "I saw him shoot Officer Ballman, I heard him shoot Ken Yost…then I saw the blood."

Webster-Kirkwood Times Associate Editor Marty Harris was among the 30 or so people in attendance at Thursday night's meeting of the Kirkwood City Council. She knew Charles "Cookie" Thornton would also be attending that meeting. On her way in at 7 p.m., she noticed his van parked outside of city hall.

When Thornton entered the council chambers, no one could have known that minutes earlier he had shot and killed Kirkwood Sgt. Bill Biggs. Harris said she did not immediately see the two revolvers Thornton carried. One was a large caliber weapon, the other was a .40 caliber handgun Thornton had taken from Sgt. Biggs.

"It was likely he was hiding them behind one of his big, familiar posters that he always seems to bring to meetings," Harris said.

The Times' editor and reporter was seated in the second row on the right side of the council chambers, along with a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one row behind Public Works Director Ken Yost.

"The meeting began as it always did with Mayor Mike Swoboda welcoming everyone and asking them to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. On this night, Council Member Connie Karr led the pledge," Harris reported.

Swoboda called for the start of the night's public hearing on the rezoning of Earl and Manchester Road. His words were interrupted by gunfire.

"Thornton walked up the right-hand side of the city council chambers to where Officer Tom Ballman was sitting and revealed two guns," said Harris. "My initial reaction was, 'this must be another one of his pranks.'"

During his years of doing battle with city hall, Thornton was known to bring posters and props into the council chambers. For example, he once brought in bananas and presented them to council members. "Hear no evil, speak no evil ..." his poster went on.

Suddenly, Thornton fired on Ballman, the shot striking the officer in the head.

"I knew that the worst-case scenario of Thornton's long-time grudge against the city was now coming true. After he shot Officer Ballman, he took a few steps around to where Public Works Director Ken Yost was sitting — where he always sat — and shot Ken in the head," Harris said.

By this time, Harris said she and others had dropped to the floor.

"I think he was saying something like 'hands in the air, hands in the air.' I thought I was dead. I thought he was going to kill everyone in the room," Harris said.

The shots continued as Thornton approached the council dais. Harris did not witness Thornton shooting and killing council members Connie Karr and Michael Lynch, nor did she see the gunman as he shot Mayor Mike Swoboda twice.

City attorney John Hessel tried to fend off Thornton by throwing chairs at him, Harris said.

A reporter from the Suburban Journals, Todd Smith, was shot in the hand and, along with Swoboda, was taken to St. John's Mercy Medical Center. Smith was released from the hospital on Sunday. Swoboda, with two gunshot wounds to the head, remains in critical condition.

"As soon as the shooting began, residents hit the floor. Others managed to escape the council chambers," Harris said.

Harris said she is not clear as to how many shots were fired, or how long the ordeal lasted before Kirkwood police arrived. Police shot Thornton to death in the council chambers.

"I didn't even realize that Cookie Thornton was killed in the chambers. I was on the floor, with my head down," Harris said.

With the smell of gunfire still in the air, stunned people at the meeting began to stir. Harris said some broke down in tears, but most walked around as if in shock, unable to comprehend the horrific scene. She said police arrived quickly, and emergency people started to come in.

Witnesses were escorted out of the council chambers, down the stairs and next door to the police station where each gave an account of the events.

As Council Member Iggy Yuan was walking to the police station, he struggled to understand why he was spared.

"Mike Lynch was right next to me," he told Harris.

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