City council gunman left suicide note
KIRKWOOD, Mo. (AP) ” A gunman carrying a grudge against City Hall left a suicide note on his bed warning “The truth will come out in the end,” before he went on a deadly shooting spree at a council meeting, his brother told The Associated Press Friday.
Arthur Thornton, 42, said in an interview at the family’s home that he knew his brother was responsible for the killings when he read the one-line note.
“It looks like my brother is going crazy, but he’s just trying to get people’s attention,” Thornton said, explaining he believed the note reflected his brother’s growing frustration with local leaders. Police have the note, he said.
After storming the meeting and killing five people Thursday night, Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton was fatally shot by law enforcers. Friends and relatives said he had a long-standing feud with the city, and he had lost a federal free-speech lawsuit against the St. Louis suburb just 10 days earlier. At earlier meetings, he said he had received 150 tickets against his business.
The victims were identified Friday as Public Works Director Kenneth Yost, Officer Tom Ballman, Officer William Biggs and council members Michael H.T. Lynch and Connie Karr. Flowers and balloons were placed outside City Hall Friday in their honor.
The city’s mayor, Mike Swoboda, was in critical at an intensive care unit, St. John’s Mercy Medical Center spokeswoman Lynne Beck said. Another victim, Suburban Journals newspaper reporter Todd Smith, was in satisfactory condition, Beck said.
“This is such an incredible shock to all of us. It’s a tragedy of untold magnitude,” Tim Griffin, Kirkwood’s deputy mayor, said at a news conference. “The business of the city will continue and we will recover but we will never be the same.”
The meeting had just started when the shooter opened fire, said Janet McNichols, a reporter covering the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The gunman killed one officer outside City Hall, then walked into the council chambers, shot another and continued pulling the trigger, St. Louis County Police spokeswoman Tracy Panus said Friday. A witness said the gunman yelled “Shoot the mayor!” as he fired shots in the chambers.
As the man fired at City Attorney John Hessel, Hessel tried to fight off the attacker by throwing chairs, McNichols said. The shooter then moved behind the desk where the council sits and fired more shots at council members.
“We crawled under the chairs and just laid there,” McNichols told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “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.”
Thornton was often a contentious presence at the council’s meetings; he had twice been convicted of disorderly conduct for disrupting meetings in May 2006.
The city had ticketed Thornton’s demolition and asphalt business, Cookco Construction, for parking his commercial vehicles in the neighborhood, said Ron Hodges, a friend who lives in the community. The tickets were “eating at him,” Hodges said.
“He felt that as a black contractor he was being singled out,” said Hodges, who is black. “I guess he thought mentally he had no more recourse. That’s not an excuse.”
The weekly Webster-Kirkwood Times quoted Swoboda as saying in June 2006 that Thornton’s contentious remarks over the years created “one of the most embarrassing situations that I have experienced in my many years of public service.”
The mayor’s comments came during a meeting attended by Thornton two weeks after he was forcibly removed from the chambers. Swoboda had said the council considered banning Thornton from future meetings but decided against it.
In a federal lawsuit stemming from his arrests 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.”
Another brother, Gerald Thornton, said the legal setback may have been his brother’s final straw. “He has (spoken) on it as best he could in the courts, and they denied all rights to the access of protection and he took it upon himself to go to war and end the issue,” he said.
Kirkwood is about 20 miles southwest of downtown St. Louis. City Hall is in a quiet area filled with condominiums, eateries and shops, not far from a dance studio and train station. Despite its reputation locally for serenity, the city has grappled in recent years with crimes that brought it unwanted attention.
Down the street from City Hall is the Imo’s pizzeria once managed by Michael Devlin, who kidnapped 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck in 2002 and held him for four years before authorities rescued him in January 2007. Also rescued was Ben Ownby, another teenager Devlin abducted just days before Devlin’s arrest.
Those crimes got Devlin life terms on state charges, as well as 170 years behind bars on federal charges that he made pornography.
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