Kirkwood is still healing, 10 years after the City Hall shootings
The choir will sing soothing words of hope when the community gathers Wednesday evening at Kirkwood United Methodist Church for a prayer service marking the 10th anniversary of a tragedy that time has not yet tempered.
“Peace fall like a gentle snow ... Fall fresh on the wounded heart ... Come blanket our every fear and let the healing start ...”
The church commissioned “Canticle of Peace’’ by Joseph M. Martin in 2009 and dedicated it to a community still healing from the City Hall shootings. On Feb. 7, 2008, Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton, armed with two handguns and a festering grudge against city officials, fatally shot two council members, the director of public works and two police officers before being shot and killed by responding police officers.
Thornton also wounded a newspaper reporter and the mayor, who died seven months later of his injuries. Thornton was black; his victims were white.
A decade later, residents say Kirkwood has moved forward but is still dealing with racial divisions that were illuminated by the tragedy.
The mass slaying of city officials by an angry resident in the thriving, mostly-white, suburban community of 27,000 people made headlines around the world. Stunned residents asked, “Why did Cookie Thornton do it?”
For some, the answer was obvious: Thornton was emotionally unstable and had been feuding with the city for years over zoning citations. But Thornton’s friends and family said racial tension and broken promises had pushed him over the edge. He thought developers weren’t hiring his asphalt and demolition business and the city was treating him unfairly because he was black.
Thornton, 57, lived in Meacham Park, a historic African-American community that voted to be annexed by Kirkwood in 1991.
“At first I couldn't believe it. It's mind-boggling to me because Cookie was a good guy and anybody that knew Cookie liked Cookie,’’ said Charles Howard, who grew up with Thornton in Meacham Park. “I knew he was upset about a few things businesswise, but for that to happen, it had to be something deep.''
In the aftermath of the shootings, Kirkwood’s church leaders — white and black — joined forces to comfort their community.
Residents participated in book clubs and forums to discuss race.
And the city agreed to work with a community relations unit of the U.S. Justice Department that focuses on race relations. The DOJ formed a mediation task force of residents and city officials. Its members drafted steps the city could take to improve communication and police relations, and they expanded the duties of the city’s Human Rights Commission. The city agreed to the findings in January 2010.
Howard served on the mediation team.
“I did it because Kirkwood needed to know some things,’’ said Howard, who is black.
Howard and other participants who worked in the mediation process say the city has made improvements but more needs to be done.
“The tragedy was a bad thing. It should have never happened. I don't justify it,’’ said Ron Hodges, a Meacham Park resident who was on the mediation team and is now a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission.
Hodges credits Police Chief Jack Plummer, who retired last June, for improving police relations with Meacham Park residents.
“We've made some progress, but we’ve got a long way to go in this country,’’ Hodges said.
'Someone needed to start the conversation'
White Kirkwood residents have become more aware of race, said the Rev. David Bennett of Kirkwood United Methodist Church, who also served on the mediation team. He helped start a group called Community for Understanding and Hope to foster communication in the city.
“I think we've been on a journey to learn more about the kind of community we want to be,’’ he said.
And the anniversary prayer service will continue that quest. The announcement notes that all are invited to the church at 7:30 p.m. for a time of reflection, discussion and prayer:
“We will remember the tragic events of Feb. 7, 2008. We will reflect on where we have been — there to here.
We will look forward to a hopeful future — moving from here to a new there.”
“I don't want to speak in a way that excludes anybody,’’ Bennett said. “We want to bring everybody to the table.’’
Bennett, 67, has been actively engaged in the community’s soul-searching. He agreed to host Thornton’s funeral at his church because there wasn’t a church in Meacham Park large enough to accommodate the expected mourners. He believes it was the right thing to do.
“Our church holds about 500, and we had 700 people,’’ Bennett said. “And I was very happy to do it. I believe that it became an opportunity for starting a conversation, especially for a largely white congregation of Kirkwood.”
Bennett got some phone calls from people who accused him of endorsing Thornton’s actions.
“That violence was unacceptable,’’ he said, “but someone needed to start the conversation.’’
The city is also sponsoring a remembrance at 7 p.m. on the steps of City Hall. It will be brief but solemn, said Kirkwood Mayor Tim Griffin. No speeches. Just an evening to remember the victims.
“Well, for most of those involved, a day doesn't go by that we don't remember it,’’ he added.
Griffin was deputy mayor in 2008 and at the City Council meeting sat next to Mayor Mike Swoboda who Thornton shot in his jaw and the back of his head.
“I was right in the middle of it,’’ said Griffin, who escaped injury.
Griffin said the shooting hit Kirkwood hard, but the community came together.
“We took this head on, and we're still responding to it,’’ he said.
Kirkwood officials say they tried to work with Thornton, but he wouldn't listen.
Griffin, who became acting mayor, said the city didn’t shy away from frank discussions about issues raised by its citizens. When the Justice Department offered its services, the city voluntarily accepted the invitation.
“There was a lot of talk back then — was this racial, was it this, or that. And it would have been easy to say, ‘No. This is Kirkwood. We know what's going on,’ '' Griffin said. “But I, for one, and the City Council back then said, ‘Let's not hide from this. The more we can talk about what's going on, the better.' ’’
‘10 years later, I can smell the gunpowder’
Most years on Feb. 7, Kirkwood City Attorney John Hessel, who lives in the community, takes a reflective stroll along the memorial walkway the city created to honor the shooting victims. He goes at 7 p.m. — about the same time Thornton opened fire.
The path begins next to City Hall and runs parallel to the railroad tracks that led to the city’s founding in 1853. Kirkwood was the first planned suburb west of the Mississippi.
Each of the six city officials killed by Thornton are commemorated with a pillar and plaque: Mayor Mike Swoboda, Councilwoman Connie Karr, Councilman Michael Lynch, Public Works Director Ken Yost, and police officers Sgt. William Biggs and Officer Tom Ballman.
Hessel, 65, is an attorney with Lewis Rice and has served as city attorney since 1985.
He was introducing documents into the record when Thornton entered the chambers. Thornton had already shot Biggs outside on a parking lot, but the police sergeant was able to press the emergency button on his radio to summon help.
“I didn't see him enter the council chambers, but I heard his voice,’’ Hessel recalled. “And when I looked up, I saw him drop this placard that he had in front of him and I saw two guns and I saw him shoot. To this day, 10 years later, I can smell the gunpowder, and I can vividly picture Tom’s head slumping over to his right. And I was thinking, ‘This can't be real.’ ’’
Hessel picked up chairs and threw them at Thornton, distracting him, so that he could run out of the chamber.
Even though Hessel has told his story many times over the years, it is never easy, he said.
“Initially, it was hard for me to talk about it,’’ he said. “But with some counseling I came to realize that talking about it can be therapeutic. There are certain parts of it — it happens every time I start talking about certain parts — I get choked up. That happens.’’
Hessel disputes any criticisms that the city failed to work with Thornton who had taken to disrupting council meetings and picketing outside of the homes of city officials. At one point, Thornton filed a state and federal suit against the city alleging that he had been cut off from speaking at city council meetings, but the case was dismissed.
“The sad part of it was when Cookie Thornton was screaming at the council meetings, the City Council members were listening,” Hessel said. “I don't think people truly appreciated that Cookie would show up, and he would scream and call everybody a bunch of donkeys or a bunch of monkeys. And they'd sort of chuckle about it. And as it evolved, I was viewed as an opponent of Cookie Thornton, when in reality I was just representing my client.’’
Thornton was in debt, and frustrated. He believed that development in Meacham Park after its annexation from St. Louis County would mean more business, but he failed to file proper bids.
In addition, Hessel said, Kirkwood’s zoning codes were tougher than the county’s — and city officials enforced them.
“Cookie failed to realize the times were changing, so he would go on jobs and he would dump his debris onto a vacant lot,’’ Hessel said. “He would park his vehicles in his front yard. Many times they were unlicensed.’’
Thornton racked up thousands of dollars in city fines.
“These are not heinous crimes,’’ Hessel said. “And I said to Cookie Thornton, ‘I will dismiss all of these tickets if you just promise to stop doing what you're doing.’ ‘’
The city had also stopped issuing tickets to Thornton, Hessel said.
But no matter his motivation, Hessel said, nothing justifies Thornton’s shooting rampage.
“At no point in time can you ever justify a person walking in and shooting people in the head point-blank and unarmed innocent people,’’ he said.
‘Mayberry didn’t have black people in it’
Residents of Kirkwood who participated in community forums held after the tragedy say the conversations often became uncomfortable when the subject turned to race relations in the city.
Howard relates a telling moment between his brother and a white resident.
“We were in one of the group things, and one lady said she felt that Kirkwood was like Mayberry,'' Howard said. It was a reference to the idyllic town in the 1960s sitcom. "And he said, ‘Well, let me say this much. The reason to you it was like Mayberry — Mayberry didn't have no black people in it.’ “
Howard, who is 64, recalls the days when Meacham Park residents weren’t welcome in Kirkwood.
“I work for the city of Kirkwood,’’ he said. “I’ve lived in Kirkwood all my life. But there was places that, until I started working for the city, I had never been.’’
Howard said it’s likely that he would still be unwelcome in some neighborhoods, unless he is there on city business.
“Neighborhoods are neighborhoods,’’ he said. “If someone feels I’m a danger, they’re going to call the police. I’m going to do the same thing in my neighborhood. I have no problem with that. If you do pull me over, be fair with me.’’
But Howard thinks attitudes are changing in the community because black and white children are going to school together, and getting to know one another at an earlier age.
Cynthia Isaac, an African-American who grew up in Kirkwood, didn’t live in the Meacham Park neighborhood , but she had family members who did. She said her experience was different.
“I had no problem moving around Kirkwood and did not feel any kind of agitation, to be honest,’’ said Isaac, who also served on the mediation team and hoped to be a bridge between Kirkwood and Meacham Park residents.
She had attended City Council meetings where Thornton was disruptive, but she was shocked by the shootings.
“I didn't realize that there was more to it and what was brewing underneath,’’ she said.
Isaac knew that some Meacham Park residents were unhappy after the annexation.
“The magnitude of change that the people in the neighborhood experienced — I think you don't really understand it unless you've lived through it,’’ she said. “It does change everything about the neighborhood.’’
The construction of a shopping center on a large chunk of Meacham Park, in effect, walled it off from the rest of Kirkwood, isolating the community, Isaac said. For the most part, white residents had little interaction with Meacham Park residents.
Isaac, who no longer lives in Kirkwood, served on the mediation team because she wanted to be a part of the solution.
But she would have liked to see more action, such as mentoring programs to help low-income residents of Meacham Park with education and job opportunities.
“I heard a lot of talking,’’ she said. “I wanted to see more of what I would call real change.’’
‘One of the things that grew from the ashes’
Ten years after the tragedy, leaders of Kirkwood’s churches continue to work together, said the Rev. Jeffery Croft of Harrison Avenue Missionary Baptist Church.
“That was one of the things that grew from the ashes,’’ said Croft, who plans to attend the prayer service at Kirkwood United Methodist.
Croft knew Thornton and, like everyone else, was shocked by the killings. He said Thornton’s dispute with the city had taken a toll.
“Yes, Cookie did do some stuff that he should not have done. And I won't say it was equal on these parts, but I do know the effect that it had on him,’’ Croft said.
Croft worked with the Community for Understanding and Hope to help the city’s residents understand the tragedy.
“It did open up a platform, and there was a lot of discussion,’’ he said.
He noted that the term “white privilege” tended to upset white residents, until it was explained.
“By no means did that take place with every conversation with every individual, but it was a breakthrough for a whole lot of people,’’ he said.
While some of the initiatives have faded, a book club started by the Community for Understanding and Hope is still going strong.
“We'll have our 10th anniversary in June, so that's staying power,’’ said Joy Weese Moll, who’s been a member since the beginning. “We have read 87 books together now. It's mostly residents of Kirkwood, although over the years we've attracted a few other people. It kind of ebbs and flows like a lot of these things do. Sometimes we feel very white and very old.’’
The group meets monthly at the Kirkwood Public Library and reads books written by African-American authors, such as “Life on the Color Line’’ by Gregory H. Williams and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.
Moll also participated in forums where she was surprised to hear stories about how her African-American neighbors were treated.
“I just had no idea this was going on,’’ she said. “And we find in a lot of ways it's easier to discuss these issues around a book. Because when we do have hard conversations we can always go back to the book and say, ‘What did the books say about that?' "
But Bill Thayer, 75, a retired math professor at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, thinks Kirkwood still has a long way to go.
He had been working for Councilwoman Connie Karr’s mayoral campaign when she was killed. He admired her dedication to her community — and that included Meacham Park, where she served as secretary of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association.
“She was very dear to me,’’ he said. “It was very sad.’’
After the tragedy, Thayer joined groups dealing with Kirkwood issues. He occasionally attends meetings of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association.
At a recent meeting, Thayer was bothered by a discussion about the lack of pedestrian safety for Meacham Park residents who must cross busy Big Bend Boulevard.
Thayer believes it’s a problem that should have been addressed years ago.
“Maybe we're not helping them cross the streets because we don't want them to cross the streets — I mean that could be an attitude that we still have here in Kirkwood,’’ he said.
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