On the surface, Charles Lee Thornton, affectionately known as “Cookie” around his hometown of Meacham Park, Kirkwood, Missouri, seemed like a happy-go-lucky individual. Who would have guessed that he’d be the perpetrator in the terrible Kirkwood City Council shooting on February 7, 2008? Our Charles Lee Thornton wiki offers some insight into the man behind the headlines and the full story of what happened that fateful evening more than a decade ago.
Who Was Charles Lee Thornton?
Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton was born on December 23, 1955. He was a lifelong resident and commercial contractor within the Meacham Park suburb of Kirkwood, Missouri, a low-income and historically predominantly African-American area.
|About Charles Lee Thornton|
|Known As||Cookie Thornton|
|Parents||Annie Bell Thornton|
|Job||Owner, construction company|
Although Thornton remarried in 1995, his second wife, Maureen Thornton, had taken a full-time job as a middle school principal in St. Petersburg, Florida. The two spent much of their marriage living apart.
Thornton had a daughter from his first marriage who lived in Florida.
By 2008, Thornton was behind in his child support payments to his ex-wife. It’s estimated that he owed approximately $10,000.
For most of his life, Thornton was a proud and active member of the Meacham Park community, involved in numerous organizations and charitable initiatives.
Charles Thornton Thought His Business Had a Promising Future
He was a huge proponent of the annexation of Meacham Park to the neighboring city of Kirkwood that took place in 1992. This was accomplished after several massively successful campaigns, debates, and high approval ratings from residents in both areas.
Post-annexation, the municipal codes that governed Kirkwood were officially undertaken by Meacham Park, which had remained unincorporated until that time and was therefore not subject to any official municipal codes of its own. Thornton supported this change.
During this time, a major new development (Walmart and other retail stores) was set to be subsidized in Meacham Park. Thornton enthusiastically advocated for this new development throughout the community. He thought that his demolition company, which he mainly operated from his home, would get the winning bid.
Although he did gain a few contracts from the development, it wasn’t as many as he expected (or claimed he was led to believe it would be) and this greatly upset Thornton.
He thought he was being racially discriminated against by the City of Kirkwood and filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1999.
In response to his allegations, Marge Schramm, who was mayor of Kirkwood at the time, stated that the developers of the project were the ones who were responsible for awarding the contracts to the winning bidder, not the city. She also denied that the city had ever made any such promises to Thornton in the first place, and this claim was later corroborated by subsequent reports regarding the matter.
Thornton Had a Major Axe to Grind with the City of Kirkwood
From 1998 onward, Thornton started incurring an increasing amount of violation citations from the City of Kirkwood regarding his business operations. He managed to rack up thousands of dollars in parking tickets for illegally parking his commercial vehicles on residential streets. Initially, he pleaded guilty to a total of six violations.
When it was clear he was unable to pay off these debts, the city offered him a five-stage plan that was geared toward helping him bring his business dealings and brick-and-mortar property up to code. Thornton agreed to these terms and was supposed to comply with the conditions within two years.
Instead, he failed to do so. Plus he continued to collect more than a dozen additional citations by the end of 2001, including one for conducting an unlicensed business from his residential property, among a slew of other business-related activities that were in direct violation of the Kirkwood city municipal codes.
The Hits Just Keep on Coming
With over 100 citations issued against him by the City of Kirkwood, Thornton was starting to feel personally victimized by the city council.
He ended up pleading guilty to the grand majority of the violations and was found guilty by a federal court for others. In some cases,
either he was found not guilty or the charges were dropped altogether.
By the late 1990s, Thornton was ordered to pay almost $20,000 in fines owed to the city in addition to his trial fees.
Unable to pay these exorbitant sums, Thornton was forced to file for bankruptcy in December 1999. The city’s initial plan was to help Thornton pay back his debt in monthly increments of $4,425 over a five-year period. After four months, he could no longer continue making the payments.
He decided to move a portion of his business from a legally mandated commercial zoned area to a residential location.
Thornton Continued Shaking Things up at City Hall
Instead of working hard to pay back the money he owed to the city, Thornton continued attending city hall meetings and accusing the local government officials of persecution, discrimination, and fraud.
He ended up suing the City of Kirkwood on more than one occasion, along with the Public Works director, Kenneth “Ken” Yost. Thornton even chose to represent himself in court several times, even though he wasn’t formally educated or trained as a lawyer.
The latest lawsuit Thornton filed against the city and Ken Yost for alleged malicious prosecution and civil rights violations was dismissed in 2005 by the Missouri Court of Appeals.
Thornton felt as if his complaints and concerns weren’t being heard by the city council members and he continued to attend meetings, despite being escorted out of several of them for disrupting the peace.
Since he was a well-known and beloved member of the Meacham Park community, the city eventually offered to forgive Thornton his debts if he agreed to drop his lawsuits and refrain from disrupting future city council meetings. He refused.
According to the Kirkwood City Attorney John Hessel (who was also present and targeted the night of the shooting), on one occasion, Thornton “stood up there for three minutes and said, ‘Because no one listens to me and you’re all a bunch of jack****s, I’m going to speak Donkey-ese.’” Allegedly, Thornton proceeded to make donkey noises for three minutes, which is the allotted speaking time for citizens to bring out issues that are related to the topic being debated during any given meeting.
Thornton Took Matters into His Own Hands
It only got worse from there.
On May 13, 2002, Thornton was accused of physically assaulting Ken Yost.
In 2006, he was handcuffed and escorted out of two city council meetings for allegedly disrupting the peace. On May 18, 2006, he was charged with disorderly conduct, but was eventually released. Less than a month later, on June 1, 2006, he was banned from attending or participating in future city council meetings.
Then-mayor of Kirkwood Mike Swoboda, who would also become one of Cookie Thornton’s victims, overturned that decision, stating, “We will act with integrity and continue to deal with [Thornton] at these council proceedings. However we will not allow Mr. Thornton, or any other person, to disrupt these proceedings.”
Thornton was also known for picketing and protesting about these perceived injustices in high-traffic neighborhoods in front of local businesses like restaurants, coffee shops, and stores.
During one such occasion, on June 24, 2007, he got into a physical confrontation with the owner of PJ’s Restaurant where he was protesting. Witnesses had to pull Thornton off of the owner, claiming he’d been stomping the man on the ground until bystanders intervened.
Earlier that year in January, he had also sued the City of Kirkwood in federal court for the sum of $350.00. Afterwards, he filed a motion to make a number of amendments to that lawsuit, most notably to sue the city for $14.0 million in damages.
But the motion was denied in federal court on June 21, 2007. Despite this ruling, Thornton bragged to his friends that he had high hopes of being rewarded millions of dollars.
Thornton Felt His Complaints Were Falling on Deaf Ears
On January 28, 2008, a federal judge dismissed Thornton’s claims that the city had violated his rights to free speech by banning him from attending and participating in city council meetings.
By this point, it became increasingly obvious that Thornton had a serious ax to grind with the members of city council, particularly Ken Yost, John Hessel, and the mayor.
Just a few days after his final court hearing—February 7, 2008—Thornton had finally had enough. Before leaving for the meeting that night, as he normally did, he kissed his mother goodbye and told her he’d see her later.
The Night of the Kirkwood City Council Shooting
Thornton had parked his vehicle on the street just across from Kirkwood City Hall. Police Sergeant William Biggs was one of the officers on duty that night. When Thornton arrived, Sergeant Biggs was walking across the street getting a bite to eat before the meeting began.
Thornton, who was armed with a magnum revolver, walked up to the uniformed officer, got into a confrontation with him, and then fatally shot him. During the altercation, Biggs pressed a distress signal alerting other officers in the area to make their way over to City Hall.
Thornton quickly grabbed the fallen officer’s weapon from his holster and headed inside the building.
Just a few moments after the Pledge of Allegiance was recited, he quietly entered the room, concealing his weapons until he found the opportune moment to get close to his intended victims.
Thirty people were in attendance that night, but it was clear that Thornton was targeting city council members.
Officer Tom Ballman was the first to be killed in the room after Thornton shot him in the head twice.
Next, the gunman shot Councilwoman Connie Karr and Councilman Michael H.T. Lynch. Ken Yost, with whom he had numerous issues in the past, was the next to be killed.
Throughout the whole ordeal, Thornton repeatedly shouted “Shoot the Mayor!”
Mayor Mike Swoboda was shot twice in the head right before Thornton started chasing City Attorney John Hessel around the room. Hessel was able to escape the attack by throwing chairs and other blunt objects at Thornton.
Witnesses reported that approximately 15 shots went off the entire time, all of which were heard at the nearby Kirkwood Police Station.
Two police officers arrived on the scene. Thornton engaged in a shootout with them that resulted in him being shot twice in the head. He died in the council room.
A reporter named Todd Smith from the Suburban Journals newspaper had been shot in the hand, but he was successfully treated and released from the hospital within 24 hours.
Mayor Swoboda wasn’t as lucky. He survived the shooting at first, but had no memory of the event and would eventually succumb to complications from his injuries on September 6, 2008.
The Aftermath of This Tragedy
Seven people ultimately lost their lives as a result of this tragedy, Thornton included.
Those who knew him well chalked up his shooting rampage to a culmination of all of the afore-mentioned run-ins he’d had with the city, suggesting Thornton had a lot of pent-up aggression inside of him that he never showed. They claimed that he was trying to be a model citizen, but felt cheated by the system.
Essentially, people, including Thornton’s relatives and friends, believed that he’d simply reached his breaking point in dealing with the city and specific councilors.
But they weren’t trying to justify his actions; rather, they were trying to rationalize his thinking.
“This was not a random rampage,” said his brother, Gerald Thornton. Interestingly, Gerald has also been involved in a violent crime, convicted in the stabbing death of a man in 1996.
Charles Lee Thornton left what police determined to be a one-line suicide note in his home that read: “The truth will come out in the end,” on the night of the shooting spree.
His estranged wife Maureen returned to Kirkwood to read a statement to the media expressing how truly sorry she was for the lives that were lost due to her husband’s unthinkable actions.
At a Meacham Park Neighborhood Association meeting that was attended by community members and members of Thornton’s family alike on February 8, 2008, Elder Henry Jones of Men and Women of Faith had this to say:
“This is something that took place over time, and perhaps could have been avoided. There always has been a great divide between Kirkwood and Meacham Park.”
In 2010, Charles Lee Thornton’s 85-year-old mother, Annie Bell Thornton, was evicted from the home she formerly shared with her son. Apparently, he’d taken out a $93,000 loan against the house, which she couldn’t afford to pay.
In response to criticism over the city’s failure to assist Lee’s mother, then-Kirkwood Mayor Art McDonnell told the Riverfront Times there was nothing the municipality could have done, financially, to save the home from foreclosure.
McDonnell said, “I feel sorry for his mother and his family, Mr. Thornton took advantage of them. It’s a sad story.”