The City Council in suburban Kirkwood, Mo., had just finished the Pledge of Allegiance on Thursday night when a gunman burst into the meeting room and opened fire, shouting "Shoot the mayor!"
He killed two police officers and three city officials, and he injured at least two others -- including the mayor -- before law enforcement officers fatally shot him.
Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, 52, was well-known in Kirkwood, a quiet, middle-class town west of St. Louis. He frequently disrupted council meetings to protest what he called persecution by the mayor and the city attorney. In 2006, he had to be removed from a meeting in handcuffs; he was convicted of disorderly conduct.
"He was one of those people who, when you heard him and saw him, you would think, 'This person needs help.' But you wouldn't think that he was dangerous," said Malcolm Bliss, a planning commissioner. "At least, I didn't."
People who knew him well said that Thornton's angry, even vulgar, rants at council meetings did not reflect his personality. Outside City Hall, they said, he was amiable and well-liked, a nice guy who ran a modest construction firm and seemed rooted in the community.
"But when it came to the City Council, he became just a different person," said Franklin McCallie, a friend who attended Thornton's wedding.
McCallie recalled Thornton holding up large posters with rude comments about city officials. "It got so bad," McCallie said, "the council members got scared enough to start having at least one police officer there."
An officer was stationed outside the council chambers Thursday evening.
He was one of the first killed.
Republican Gov. Matt Blunt called the tragedy a "senseless and horrific crime."
Thornton's brother, Gerald, told local television station KMOV that he saw justification for the bloodshed. "My brother went to war tonight with the people and government that were putting torment and strife into his life, and he ended it," Gerald Thornton said. "I'm OK with it."
Charles Thornton's dispute with city officials apparently began with citations he was issued for illegally parking his construction equipment.
"He was disruptive, but the council always gave him two or three minutes to give his comments," Bliss said.
In June 2006, however, the mayor grew frustrated with Thornton's verbal abuse. Council members ordered law enforcement to remove him from the chambers.
Thornton responded with a federal lawsuit alleging that his right to free speech had been violated.
On Jan. 28 of this year U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry dismissed the lawsuit.
"Any restrictions on Thornton's speech were reasonable, viewpoint-neutral and served important governmental interests," Perry wrote. "Thornton does not have a 1st Amendment right to engage in irrelevant debate and to voice repetitive, personal, virulent attacks against Kirkwood and its city officials."
Even after Thornton was thrown out of the 2006 meeting, council members said they would allow him to speak at other sessions. They also tried to resolve the underlying dispute.
"At one point, the City Council offered to waive the fines if he'd just stop the acrimony. But he couldn't. Or wouldn't," said McCallie, a longtime principal of Kirkwood High School.
"It was so horrible, because outside of this, he was just a wonderful and wonderfully loved man in the community. It descended into a fight that just couldn't stop," McCallie said.
The agenda for Thursday's meeting was full of prosaic, noncontroversial votes: rezoning questions, an ordinance to reduce pollution in storm-water runoff, approval of a $16,500 contract to buy new tables for the parks and recreation department.
The Pledge of Allegiance was to have been led by Councilwoman Connie Karr, who was running for mayor in an election this spring. Witnesses, including a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told local media that the council had just finished the Pledge when Thornton rushed toward the dais at the front of the room, shooting at officials' heads.
"I laid on my stomach waiting to get shot. Oh, God, it was a horror," reporter Janet McNichols told the Post-Dispatch.
Kirkwood police would not release the names of those shot Thursday night, but local media identified Karr as one of the deceased. Friends of Mayor Mike Swoboda said he had been shot in the head and was in intensive care.
It was not clear who killed Thornton, or where.
"No one knows what to make of it," said Mary Yuan, wife of Councilman Iggy Yuan. He called her after the shooting, as dozens of rescue vehicles swarmed the area.
"I'm feeling wretched, to be honest," said Planning Commissioner Edward D. Golterman. "It is beyond belief that someone would go shooting people over a zoning dispute."
The mayor and City Council, he said, "are dedicated people, volunteers, working for $200 a month." The mayor, who is finishing his second term, has been active in local government for two decades, friends said.
"Everyone's in shock," Bliss said. "This is a quiet town. You just don't expect anything like this. No one does."
Founded in 1853, Kirkwood is a community of about 27,000, with a quaint downtown, a train depot, and stately old homes on shaded streets.
The town made headlines last year when the manager of a local pizza restaurant, Michael Devlin, was arrested for kidnapping two boys. He had held one of the boys for five years, the other for several days. Devlin was convicted on state and federal charges and is serving a life sentence.
The community also suffered a tragedy in summer 2005, when a veteran police officer was shot in his cruiser as he responded to a complaint about fireworks. Late last week, the man who killed that officer was sentenced to death. The officer is honored at a park just a block from City Hall.
Huffstutter reported from Chicago and Simon from Denver.