The Kirkwood Shootings: Why Did Cookie Thornton Kill?

Part 1: Why Did Cookie Thornton Kill? >> Part 2: Kirkwood, Meacham Park and the Racial Divide >> Part 3: The Return to City Hall >> Part 4: The Man Who Threw Chairs

In the initial shock, it seemed simple: Cookie Thornton had gone crazy. Then people started commenting, and it seemed even simpler: A black man had gotten fed up with bigotry and taken revenge. Then explanations started coming, and nothing was simple at all

On February 7, Charles Lee Thornton wrote a note that promised, “The truth will win out in the end.” Then he drove to Kirkwood City Hall with a gun. Outside, he shot and killed Kirkwood Police Sgt. Bill Biggs and took his gun. Inside the council chamber, in exactly 1 minute and 13 seconds, he killed five city officials and critically wounded the mayor.

For more than seven years, Thornton had been accusing the city council members of lying, discriminating against him, exploiting his black Meacham Park neighborhood for white profit. But the first person he shot, Bill Biggs, had coached ball in Meacham Park and earned the fond nickname “The Mayor of Meacham Park.” The fourth victim was mayoral candidate Connie Karr, who’d served as secretary of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, wanted Meacham Park to have representation on the city council and wanted to resolve Thornton’s problems as soon as possible.

What truth was supposed to win out?

People told each other again and again not to try to find logic in something illogical. Members of the Grace Community Bible Church insisted, “The devil took over our dear brother’s heart.” After the news hit CNN and rippled around the world, cities in places as far-flung as Ottawa, Canada, nervously reexamined their security. Strangers launched debates about everything from slavery to at-large governance to the lack of gun control; accused Thornton of selfishness, craziness, a hero complex and an arrogant refusal to obey the law; accused Kirkwood of cronyism, elitism, greed and an arrogant refusal to listen.

But the single remark that caught the most attention was made by one of Cookie’s older brothers, Gerald Thornton, who said, “My brother went to war.”

And nobody touched that one.

When Gerald came to live with Cookie in 2003, Cookie had already been battling with Kirkwood City Hall for years—which didn’t surprise Gerald at all. “When we grew up, we were told to stand for the protection of our rights,” he explains. “You are supposed to go through the courts, use the system.”

Rights got endangered all the time in Meacham Park, an unincorporated black community tucked between Big Bend and I-44 just east of Kirkwood Road. When the brothers were kids, it was a tight-knit black community, proudly self-sustaining, with an almost rural feel: dirt roads, neighborly habits, lots of churches and backyard chicken coops. By the time the nine Thornton kids grew up, Meacham Park had slid into urban decay—joblessness, crime, drugs and no leverage to get public services from
St. Louis County. Cookie had done well, though: After graduating from Northeast Missouri State University, now Truman State University, he’d started his own asphalt and demolition business, parking his miscellany of heavy equipment on their parents’ lot on Attucks Street and paving older neighbors’ driveways for free whenever he got extra asphalt.

In 1991, when neighboring Kirkwood—white, manicured, prosperous and self-consciously idyllic—voted to annex Meacham Park, Cookie stood with the overwhelming majority of residents who welcomed the change (in both communities, more than 70 percent favored annexation). Bubbling over with “Praise the Lords,” Cookie served on Kirkwood’s housing authority board, mentored kids at a neighborhood youth club, read to little ones, even ran (unsuccessfully) for city council.

But the problems had already begun.

For roughly two decades, St. Louis County had never minded Cookie parking his equipment in a residential neighborhood, so Cookie had figured he was “grandfathered in.” Kirkwood disagreed. There were tickets and arguments, and Cookie finally rented an abandoned filling station by the railroad tracks. Then that solution fell apart, because he couldn’t afford the rent.

Former Kirkwood High School principal Franklin McCallie, a friend of Thornton’s, and Paul Ward, a black council member who chaired the Meacham Park Redevelopment Plan after annexation, both remember Cookie telling them he’d spent money on new equipment, getting ready for a demolition contract he swore city officials had promised him.

Kirkwood was pushing hard to get Meacham Park residents’ approval for the Kirkwood Commons project: By taking roughly two-thirds of Meacham Park, the prime stretch along Kirkwood Road just south of Big Bend, for a big-box commercial development (Wal-Mart, Target and Lowe’s), Kirkwood could clean out the Section 8 housing St. Louis County had dumped in Meacham Park, get tax-increment financing money to fix up the remaining residential area and glean sales tax without raising the ruckus inevitable anywhere else in Kirkwood.

Cookie, a beloved figure in Meacham Park, spoke with enthusiasm about the proposal—until his contract failed to materialize.

Marge Schramm, who was mayor of Kirkwood at the time, says she never made any specific promises to Cookie; the decision would have been up to the developers. “I know we strongly urged that he be included in minority businesses—we did require a certain amount of work for minorities. But that’s not just Cookie.”

He may, she says, have misunderstood.

“I believe that’s where the disillusionment started,” Ward says. “He said the mayor and council members had told him that, but the contract was up to the developer. We encouraged him to go sit down with the developer, but he just expected that the phone was going to ring. Things didn’t happen the way he expected them to—and it just went downhill from there.”

On December 17, 1999, Cookie filed for bankruptcy. He went back to parking his vehicles on or near job sites. He challenged the tickets that piled up—parking violations, trash and debris on his lot, dumping debris on vacant lots. They made perfect sense to the Kirkwood City Council, but Cookie told Gerald that Kirkwood didn’t have clear rules or sufficient evidence and its ordinances were interfering with his right to earn his livelihood.

Cookie started protesting his innocence at council meetings, alleging a racist conspiracy, and everybody thought he was referring only to what looked like cut-and-dried ordinance violations. In 2001 he was convicted of 19 violations and fined $12,250. The following year, he was convicted of assaulting city engineer Ken Yost—the second man he later shot and killed at City Hall—by throwing straw on him when Yost came to discuss the violations while Cookie was working in his yard. He was also convicted of 26 more violations and fined $6,200. The city eventually stopped at 100 tickets and a bill of $20,000.

But Cookie wouldn’t give up.

From the Kirkwood City Council’s point of view, Cookie’s claim of innocence was ludicrous: They had pictures of him parking illegally, and his claims of racism and conspiracy made no sense. Cookie took pictures, too, and wanted to argue the incidents one by one. He later told Gerald that Kirkwood not only had kicked his equipment off his family’s land but also had lied to him about the contract, then hit him with all these violations, destroying his business. Gerald says Cookie was convinced that his record of violations would keep him from getting big contracts.

Unfortunately, he never really explained his thinking to any­body outside his family, just slammed the council with accusations about lies, a “racist conspiracy” and a “plantation mentality.”

“He’s a private man,” Gerald says, unable to drop the present tense. “He’s not going to go crying, ‘Look at what they are doing to me.’ The most he would do is protesting, but he wouldn’t go into the individual cases. People don’t understand all this, and they would say, ‘Why don’t you just walk away?’ But after 9/11, there’s no walking away from your past. As long as it’s on your record, others can use that record against you.”

Cookie wanted the slate wiped clean; he felt Kirkwood still owed him something for disrupting a preexisting business run on a shoestring, and he suspected the city officials had set out to exploit him from the start. So he did everything he could think of to get attention. In council meetings, he brayed and heehawed to illustrate his claim that Mayor Mike Swoboda was a jackass. He carried a placard (something along the lines of “The mayor’s a liar, John Hessel’s a liar, and two liars equals a coverup”) in front of the polished entrance of Lewis, Rice & Fingersh, where city attorney John Hessel works, and he picketed Hessel’s and Swoboda’s homes, too. The less credence the city council gave his sloganed protests, the louder and more insulting Cookie became.

Joyce Breadon of Meacham Park says she stopped going to city council meetings after witnessing one of his displays. “Nobody was calling on Cookie, so he would get angry and lay down in the aisle. It was disgusting. I’d look over and say, ‘Cookie, you get up from there! What in the world are you doing down there?’ I thought, ‘Why is Cookie being so stupid?’ Then I didn’t go anymore, period. My heart couldn’t take it.

“My son-in-law had to park his trucks in Valley Park; Kirkwood has always been that way,” she adds. “So Cookie was wrong all the time. But you keep being rejected, the hatred keeps building up.”

In 2002 Hessel appointed a young lawyer at his firm to prosecute Cookie but instructed him to first make Cookie an offer: If he agreed to start obeying the law, Kirkwood would forgive the entire $20,000. The young lawyer returned bemused: “He says he’s innocent.” So Hessel went himself. “Why don’t we agree that you didn’t understand the rules, but now you do, and going forward you will follow the rules?” he recalls saying. Thornton refused. In his mind the only way his record could be cleared and his honor restored was for Kirkwood officials to publicly admit they had wronged him.

They kept arguing the tickets, and so did he, but like chronic marital wrangling, what they argued about didn’t go anywhere near the real problem. The annexation had been an abrupt wedding across two very different cultures, and racial tension inhibited Kirkwood and inflamed Cookie. If he had been a financially successful white Kirkwoodian, odds are he’d have pulled a few strings or let the matter drop, because it wouldn’t have felt symbolic or threatened his livelihood. And if Meacham Park hadn’t been a powder keg since Kevin Johnson shot Kirkwood Police Sgt. Bill McEntee in 2005, blaming the police for his little brother’s death, maybe it would have been easier to talk through Cookie’s assumptions about race and betrayal.

As it was, Cookie grew more and more wary, bitter, determined. On January 30, 2003, McCallie went to a city council meeting and saw his old friend Cookie interrupt by standing up with a sign. “He was completely out of line and out of order,” McCallie says, “and the rancor that went back and forth between Cookie and the mayor was awful.” After the meeting, a stunned McCallie found out this had been going on for two years. He told Cookie he was sure they could find an answer.

Four months later, McCallie gave up. He’d gone over 16 of the 100 tickets and found one mistake in Cookie’s favor, but Cookie had pounced on the news as ammo: “See? It’s racism!” “He kept saying, ‘No, no, no,’” says McCallie, who now wishes desperately that he’d realized far more complex resentments lay behind Cookie’s obstinacy about those tickets.

In 2003 the city council members told Hessel, “Go back to him and talk to him again,” Hessel recalls wearily. “So I did. I said, ‘What do you want? What will give you peace?’ He said, ‘I want the city to admit that they have done me wrong.’ I said, ‘I can’t give you that. If you really think that’s the case, file a lawsuit—there’s lawyers all over the place.’”

Cookie did file, and lost. Appealed, and lost. Nobody seemed to be listening, not even the system he’d trusted to protect him—so his demands grew more outrageous. McCallie remembers Thornton wanting “a public apology in front of the city council and $25 million.” Kirkwood Police Chief Jack Plummer says, “One time he wanted
$1 million; another time he wanted $5 million, and he wanted everyone to stand up and state publicly not only that we were completely wrong but that it was intentional.”

Cookie decided the council couldn’t afford to honor his demands. He showed Gerald a Kirkwood ordinance he’d unearthed, saying that city officials who are found to have violated a person’s rights lose their jobs.

The council members weren’t worried in the least about their jobs; they were worried about Cookie’s disruptions. Determined to remain polite, they set up a blue velvet rope and egg timer, controlling Cookie as best they could. In 2006 he started letting his body go limp at meetings so that he’d have to be removed.

Still relying on the system to prove him right, Cookie gave up on suing the city in St. Louis County and took his case to the federal level, hoping to get far away from the Kirkwood community he figured had a vested interest in the status quo.

By now Cookie was supporting Gerald; the IRS was knocking on his door; he had legal fees and court costs to pay, liens and mortgages and other debts. He couldn’t afford a federal lawsuit—but it was his only hope.

“When you have those many things coming at you that are destroying your livelihood, and you are being labeled as disgruntled, as a person who cannot follow the law, and you are being ignored and even arrested, it shows you that you are actually being attacked by the sources that are in place to protect you,” Gerald says, his tone solemn and measured.

“Now, that level of protection that he used, in my viewpoint, was a last stand,” he adds. “A lot of people go in prisons, and the only way they come out is dead.”

There’s a dumbfounded silence, and Gerald realizes what’s obvious to him is not obvious at all.

“They had already said they were going to put him under this second assault charge,” he explains, “and the laws said he was going to be incarcerated in the county jail system for a year. And some people go into prison and never come out.”

The second assault charge was made last July; the case had not yet been tried. Cookie was picketing outside PJ’s Tavern, holding a sign up to the window. “I got mad—John Hessel’s my best friend,” says co-owner Paul Cartier. “I told him to get out, and he kicked my legs out from under me.” Two Kirkwood police officers were eating at PJ’s; they came out and arrested Cookie. “I didn’t even want them to prosecute; that was St. Louis County,” Cartier says. “I said, ‘You’re not gonna put him in jail, and it’s just going to make him mad.”

According to Gerald, Cookie was convinced he was going to jail. “He got the actual charge number from them and looked up the state statute. It was a setup; they were going to find him guilty and lock him up,” Gerald says firmly. “Otherwise they’d have dropped the charges.”

Cookie had never done anything more violent than kick Cartier and throw straw at Yost, but Gerald had spent seven years incarcerated in St. Louis County for fatally stabbing a man in 1996 (he still claims it was self-defense), and he told his brother in detail what to expect.

“You are locked up; you don’t know who to trust; people can get weapons and do what they want to you; guards can put you in cuffs and beat you,” Gerald says. “Those are the things that are on you just because you are incarcerated. I explained it to him.”

In the early days, all most people saw in Cookie was exuberant affection and generosity. “He’d see my wife across the room and yell, ‘Whooooooo-wwwwwwweeeeeeeee! You beautiful thing!’” says McCallie, adding that even when Cookie started dropping off committees, growing more and more consumed with City Hall, “he was still his optimistic self to his friends.” In retrospect, though, there were signs. Joyce Breadon’s sister came home from a funeral and said, “Do you know a ‘Cookie’? He scared me to death. Yelled, ‘Good God almighty!’ and raced out of the church, and then came back to his seat.”

Nobody did anything? “Oh no, they didn’t question that, because he has those outbreaks every once in a while,” Breadon says.

Ward says, “The manic behavior should have been a clue, but he had such a bubbly personality, and that masked it.”

Dr. John Rabun, a St. Louis forensic psychiatrist, can’t comment on Thornton’s case, but he can assess risk and offer general profiles, and the one that fits is that of workplace violence. We’re not talking young impulsive aggression, we’re talking law-abiding, middle-aged men whose livelihood and pride are at stake and who feel wronged to the point that the feeling consumes them. “It may be because after years of being devoted or involved, the person starts to feel jilted or muscled out or maneuvered out,” Rabun says. “The anger can be cumulative.”

So how does chronic, wounded anger turn into mass violence—especially from someone who’s famously kindhearted and religious?

“People compartmentalize, especially when they feel wronged,” Rabun says. “They can justify 10 different ways why it’s right to kill somebody, even when it goes against their religious tradition. They hash it over and over again before they actually do it, until they have numbed themselves to it. If you obsess about something, you are turning it over thousands of times a day in your mind, and every time, you feel more comfortable turning thought into action.”

So are they, as onlookers decided of Thornton, “crazy”? “It would be highly atypical for them to be psychotic,” Rabun says. “They stew and brood; they don’t act on impulse. Many have a legitimate grudge—there is a kernel of truth to what they are upset about—and there’s been some kind of negative interaction with the victims in the past. It’s common for them to be paranoid, to suspect that others are subverting them and magnify things in their mind.”

They don’t move to violence immediately, Rabun adds; first they try rational methods, and they spend time defining characteristics of the individuals they think are responsible. “They become increasingly loud, angry and confrontational, and feel more and more jilted, which makes them more and more angry. The person who is not paranoid usually gives it up, but someone who is paranoid does not. It becomes a blow to his pride—a pathological pride that is held very rigidly.”

Often there’s a major loss—or perception of one—before the violence, he adds.

Like Cookie learning the week before the shootings that he’d lost his federal lawsuit—the lawsuit he mortgaged his parents’ home to win, which he expected to vindicate him?

Rabun can’t comment—except to warn that close attention needs to be paid.

“It never ceases to amaze me,” he says slowly. “If someone comes to his wife and says, ‘There’s blood in my urine,’ she will force him to go to the doctor. But if he says, ‘I hate my boss; I’d like to kill him,’ she’ll blow it off and say he was just letting off steam.”

Chief Plummer says he defies anybody to have seen the violence coming. “Most people go through different stages, and you can see it getting worse. Cookie escalated a number of years ago, but I never saw him move past the stage of harassment. At one meeting, he brought a big chunk of asphalt. I sat close to him while he did his little spiel, and when he set it down, I picked it up and took it out of the room. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I don’t want anybody to get hit with it,’ and he said, ‘I would never do that.’ I looked in the man’s eyes. I tested him. There was nothing that would have suggested violence.”

Even so, Plummer did consider having Thornton committed. “We kicked it around here, but then what you are doing is fanning the flames of somebody being denied rights of free speech. There’s a helluva lot of people wandering around out there obsessive.”

Plummer’s hesitation was about locking Cookie up for 96 hours for an evaluation. He never dreamed that Cookie might expect to be locked up for a year—maybe forever—on that assault charge or that he and his brother kept talking about what it would be like.

“They say there’s no reason for you to fight in there, but the other prisoners have—they call them shivs—and yelling while somebody’s stabbing you to death is not going to defend you,” Gerald says. “I explained it to him. It’s a hard life. And that’s why I immediately told people that he went to war.”

Note: The print version of this story incorrectly listed February 14 as the date of the shootings. This online version corrects that date to February 7.

Part 1: Why Did Cookie Kill? >> Part 2: Kirkwood, Meacham Park and the Racial Divide >> Part 3: The Return to City Hall >> Part 4: The Man Who Threw Chairs


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