Killer of five left note: 'Truth will win'

Times Staff Writers

Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton wrote a goodbye note Thursday, one sentence on a single piece of paper: "The truth will win in the end." He laid it on his bed.

Then he climbed into the aging ambulance he liked to drive and set out for City Hall.

Within minutes, Thornton would kill five Kirkwood officials and injure two others, including the mayor, in an attack that shattered this quiet suburb.

Police and witnesses said that shortly before 7 p.m., Thornton pulled up to the curb in his blue-and-white ambulance and parked next to one of the Victorian-style streetlights. Across the street, Police Sgt. William Biggs, was heading for a pizzeria to buy dinner. Thornton ran up to him; they exchanged words. Then Thornton pulled out a large-caliber gun.

Nearly two blocks away, firefighters at the Kirkwood station heard the crack.

As Biggs fell, Thornton grabbed his service weapon, a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson, and ran to City Hall. He pushed through two sets of double doors and into the City Council chambers, where as many as two dozen citizens stood chatting. Mayor Mike Swoboda was just about to call the meeting to order.

Some in the room saw Thornton wave his guns.

Some heard him rant about justice.

Some heard a shout: "Shoot the mayor!"

Thornton walked up the right side of the room, making for a small table where Police Officer Tom Ballman sat with the city clerk.

There were screams, gasps -- and then a gunshot. And another.

Ballman fell before he could draw his weapon. Todd Smith, a reporter for the Suburban Journals, took a bullet to his hand. Thornton kept going, toward the raised dais where the mayor, five council members, the city attorney and the chief administrative officer sat.

It all happened so fast, a horrible swirl of shouts and shots, that no one had a chance to dial 911.

City Atty. John Hessel heaved a metal chair at Thornton. The gunman kept coming, a weapon in each hand. He shot the public works director, Kenneth Yost, who had been sitting in the first row of chairs. Reporter Janet McNichols dived to the floor.

She could hear Yost struggling to breathe, see his blood staining the hardwood floor.

Huddled under a chair, she watched him die.

Within seconds, three more victims were down. Council members Connie Karr and Michael Lynch were killed. Swoboda was hit in the head; he remained in critical condition Friday night.

Seeing the mayor go down, Hessel made a snap decision: Don't duck. Run. "I said, 'Cookie, don't do this. Don't kill me. I'm not going to let you do this,' " Hessel told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He raced for the exit at the back of the council chambers, leaping over Yost's body, flinging chairs at Thornton, who stumbled after him, guns held high.

Across a small parking lot from City Hall, officers at the Kirkwood Police Department heard a commotion coming from the second story of City Hall. Running toward the noise, they found chaos. Details at this point get fuzzy. But within moments, Thornton was dead.

McNichols, the reporter, recounted her experience in a video posted on the Post-Dispatch website. She said she heard the police yell: "We got him. OK, he's down. You can get up." She remembers trying not to look at the bodies as she left the room.

Sirens shrieked through the night air, and dozens of police cars, firetrucks and ambulances converged on Kirkwood's elegant old City Hall.

Terrified business owners, unsure what was happening, bolted their doors. Residents of a nearby condominium complex poured into the streets. At the Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, employee Dan Moticka pushed four customers under the countertop. Even in the panic, he thought to grab paper and colored pens to calm two little girls.

As news of the tragedy spread, residents flooded St. John's Mercy Medical Center. Friends and family members of the victims paced the halls or milled in the emergency room -- embracing, weeping, waiting.

Paul Ward found his friend Councilman Timothy Griffin, who had been at the dais when the shooting started.

"His hands were shaking. He was pale," said Ward, a former city councilman. When Griffin tried to speak, Ward said, he had trouble finishing a sentence. "He told me: 'I'm doing. . . . I guess I'm doing. . . . I'm just lucky to be alive."

The victims, all longtime public servants, were remembered as kind and giving:

Karr, 51, organized sewing circles each Sunday to make quilts for soldiers in Iraq. Lynch, 63, was an Army Reserve veteran; he spent Tuesday selling beers at a Mardi Gras festival to raise money for the local American Legion post.

Both slain police officers were veterans of the Kirkwood department. Biggs, 50, had more than 20 years on the force, according to police sources. Ballman, 37, had been with the department for eight years and led children on tours of the station.

Yost, 61, spent years as a city engineer and planner. He had recently returned from a cruise with his wife, Cathy, to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

At an afternoon vigil Friday, church bells tolled six times. Former Mayor Herb Jones expressed the grief, and bewilderment, that all of Kirkwood seemed to feel: "I don't think we can understand what's happened to our community. They were all friends of ours, even the assailant."

Thornton, 52, did have many friends in Kirkwood. In high school, he had been a standout athlete, a state champion triple jumper. He was outgoing, friendly -- full of joy, his friends said.

Over the years, Thornton had started a number of small businesses; his main work was pouring asphalt and laying concrete. He filed for bankruptcy in 1999, but his finances appeared to have stabilized. Public records show that he expected income of $120,000 this year for his two-person construction firm.

Thornton had a daughter and close-knit siblings. But in the last several years, an escalating feud with the city came to dominate his life.

He was cited scores of times -- racking up thousands of dollars in fines -- for illegally parking construction equipment and failing to get business permits. He refused to accept that he was in the wrong.

Instead, he ranted and railed at nearly every council meeting. In May and June of 2006, Swoboda ordered him removed from meetings after he made vulgar personal remarks about city officials.

Acting as his own attorney, Thornton filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the city had denied him his "rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" by removing him from those two meetings.

"Plaintiff has suffered and will continue to suffer extreme hardship and actual and impending irreparable Humiliation in his Character of a Positive community role model," he wrote.

Less than two weeks ago, a federal judge dismissed his case.

Thornton had other legal entanglements. In July, he picketed a local restaurant, a favorite gathering place for council members. The owner asked him to leave. According to a police report, Thornton pushed the owner to the ground -- and kept him there until officers arrived.

In a voluntary statement to police, Thornton said the restaurant wasn't his first stop: "I started my protest at the mayor's house."

He was charged with third-degree assault for his role in the altercation. The case was supposed to go to trial later this year.

Despite Thornton's mounting troubles, his family said they had no indication that he was contemplating violence. "He just seemed to be getting more and more angry . . . and who can blame him?" said his brother Gerald.

At noon Friday, as citizens gathered at a local church, Gerald Thornton went to City Hall for his own quiet vigil.

A lanky man in a dark suit jacket and pressed jeans, he leaned on a wooden cane and gazed at a huge pile of flowers and teddy bears. There was a photo of Ballman and a note: "We will miss you, Tom." There were funeral wreaths. And five white balloons.

As Gerald Thornton stood there, his eyes welling, a steady stream of men and women walked up to drop off bouquets. Some glared at him. A few jostled him as they passed.

Suddenly a woman ran over from across the street, shouting: "You don't deserve to be here! Your brother is the reason we're grieving."

"My family lost someone," Thornton said. "We're grieving too."

The woman turned to walk away.

"Why is it that we can't come together right now?" Thornton called after her.

She kept walking.



Huffstutter reported from Kirkwood, Mo., and Simon from Denver.

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