"He Couldn't Be Consoled"

Convinced the city of Kirkwood was out to destroy him, Charles Thornton waged a sustained campaign against the city that would end in tragedy

Charles Thornton photographed in August 2003 next to his van draped with posters critical of Kirkwood government. file photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)
02/15/2008 - The man responsible for the Feb. 7 shootings in the Kirkwood Council Chambers campaigned for a seat on that very council back in 1994. He lost that election, but remained upbeat.

"I was just getting my feet wet," Thornton reminisced in March 1995, almost a year after his election defeat. "I didn't run a hardcore campaign. I just wanted to let folks know there are qualified people from Meacham Park who are willing to participate in Kirkwood government."

A 1974 graduate of Kirkwood High School, Thornton, 52, was one of five brothers raised in Meacham Park. He attended Northeast Missouri State University on a track scholarship, where he earned a degree in business administration.

After college, Thornton returned to his Meacham Park community. In 1986 he started Cookco Construction — a demolition, construction, asphalt and paving company.

Thornton was not new to community service. In a February 1996 letter appearing in this newspaper, he announced that, despite efforts to encourage him to do so, he would not run a second time for election to city council. Existing commitments to the community did not allow him time for public office, he said.

Thornton was involved in Club 44, the Kirkwood Area Chamber of Commerce and Project 2000. He sat on the board of directors for the Kirkwood-Webster YMCA, the Kirkwood Historical Society, EduCare, the Kirkwood Housing Authority and was part of a city steering group looking into improvements to the southeast area of Kirkwood.

As a member of Project 2000, Thornton served as a male role model to young students at Tillman Elementary School. He was enthusiastic, fun and dedicated, according to the teacher whose third and fourth grade classrooms hosted Thornton each week.

"In the spring he brings his company's tractor to school and gives all the kids a ride. He brings them all baseball hats with his company insignia. He's a gem," said the teacher, quoted in a 1995 article on Thornton which appeared in this newspaper.

State Sen. Michael Gibbons, Kirkwood, said the Cookie Thornton he has known throughout his life is not the same person who committed the Feb. 7 shootings. He said he and his family attended Thornton's wedding to Maureen about 12 years ago. He described Thornton as "upbeat and friendly."

Thornton's wife taught at Nipher Middle School at the time. The couple had met at Club 44, and Thornton proposed to her publicly at a Club 44 banquet. After Maureen took her retirement several years ago, she and her husband moved to Florida where she became principal of a middle school.

Thornton, however, would not remain in Florida. About a month ago his wife was in town and attempted to persuade her husband to return to Florida with him. Her efforts were unsuccessful.

The Downturn

Beginning in the late 1990s events unfolded that would bring about a marked change in Thornton's attitude and approach to the city of Kirkwood. By 2000 he had relinquished his volunteer positions.

"I had to resign from seven boards because I could no longer provide services to the city and be subject to racial discrimination and harassment at the same time," Thornton said in 2003. "I was on Project 2000 for eight years, but could not continue to serve with parents seeing me being arrested all of the time."

Charles Thornton’s mother, Annie Bell Thornton, speaks at a noon gathering on Friday at J. Milton Turner School in Meacham Park. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Some say Thornton's demeanor began to change in 2000 when the city, having annexed Meacham Park in 1992, began enforcing city codes in that neighborhood. Thornton began collecting tickets; cited for parking his work vehicles for days, sometimes weeks, at a time in front of his home and in other lots throughout Meacham Park.

Other citations included performing work without a proper city permit, building code violations and posting of illegal signs. In all, Thornton tallied some $20,000 in fines to date.

Throughout it all, Thornton claimed he had become the target of a racially-biased city out to ruin him.

"They know exactly where I'm going to be. They arrest me right on the job and harass me right on the job. They just find ways to create these tickets. It's a vigilante-type situation," Thornton told the Times in August 2003.

Thornton's view that he had become the victim of racial prejudice started earlier than 2000, and before the citations began mounting. Thornton supported redevelopment in Meacham Park, anticipating that his Cookco Construction would be among minority contractors hired to do work. In early 1999, Thornton filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission when he did not get as much work as he had expected.

Thornton said he had been told that his bids were too high, his work had been too slow, and that he lacked proper equipment. Thornton called those reasons "ridiculous."

"I do strongly feel the real reason is racially motivated ...," Thornton said in February 1999.

Thornton then became a regular at Kirkwood Council meetings where he addressed the mayor, council and city officials as jackasses, mocking them with bellows of "Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw." He referred to Kirkwood as "the plantation."

"Couldn't Be Consoled"

Former City Council Member Paul Ward served from 2000-2004, and was privy to Thornton's many contentious outbursts at city council meetings.

"I tried to help him, but he couldn't be consoled," Ward said. "The police chief and others talked to him many times, but he couldn't be consoled. He lost his perspective," Ward said.

Ward said that Thornton was a man who saw no recourse, his pain greater than his respect for life.

"You can't have that," Ward said.

On May 7, 2002, a Circuit Court judge in St. Louis County found Thornton guilty of assault and battery against Kirkwood Public Works Director Ken Yost. In all, Thornton was fined $6,200 as a result of the incident.

"The truth is, we never wanted the money from Cookie Thornton. What we wanted him to do is simply abide by the law," said City Attorney John Hessel in August 2003.

Former Mayor Herb Jones said that never in its history had Kirkwood endured so much suffering over a short period of time. He said that everyone on the council went out of their way to help Thornton, and no one reached out to Thornton more than Public Works Director Ken Yost.

Thornton's troubles continued in May 2006 when he was escorted out of the council chambers in handcuffs by police officers. He was charged with disorderly conduct. The incident, along with Thornton's disruptive behavior at past council meetings, prompted the city council to consider banning him from meetings in June 2006. The council decided against that ban.

"The city council has decided that they will not lower themselves to Mr. Thornton's level," Mayor Mike Swoboda said at the time.

More than a year ago, City Attorney Hessel said he met with Thornton and told him the city was willing to make his fines disappear if Thornton agreed to drop the matter along with lawsuits he had filed. Thornton would not go along.

With his financial situation deteriorating, Thornton was still counting on winning a federal lawsuit against Kirkwood. That case was dismissed in late January. The Feb. 7 Kirkwood Council meeting was the first since the judge's dismissal of Thornton's case.

Thornton killed two police officers, the director of public works and two council members. He gravely wounded the mayor and shot a reporter in the hand.

Paul Thornton found the note the morning after the shootings in his brother's room. It read: "The truth will win out in the end."

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