An Unlikely Campaign in an Unlikely City

           KIRKWOOD, Mo. (CN) - Six years after his uncle interrupted a Kirkwood City Council meeting with a hail of bullets, Jayson M. Thornton is running for one of the seats that was once in the crosshairs of his uncle's gun.
     Thornton says he didn't plan to run for City Council. The 30-year-old accountant said his neighbors came to him. After collecting 117 signatures in two days to get his name on the April 8 ballot, Thornton said he was all in.
     He believes his accounting experience will help the city with its projected $65 million budget.
     "The question should always be asked, 'Does this expenditure really improve the quality of life of all Kirkwood residents?'" Thornton told Courthouse News. "As an accountant, I understand how to work within a budget. I understand how to look through line items and try to find, 'Is this item really being spent on what we need, or is there waste in there?'"
     Thornton said his main wish is that his campaign for city Council be treated like any other's, that he be judged on his merits alone.
     But this is far from a run-of-the-mill City Council campaign.
     On Feb. 7, 2008, Charles "Cookie" Thornton went on a shooting spree during a Kirkwood City Council meeting. Five people were killed before Charles Thornton took his own life. Kirkwood's mayor, who was shot in the head, died months later.
     The affluent suburb of St. Louis was thrust into a national spotlight. In the weeks after, Charles Thornton's personal issues with the City Council became well-publicized, as did tensions between Meacham Park - Kirkwood's lone predominantly African-American community, where the Thorntons live - and the rest of the city.
     Now, just over six years later, Jayson Thornton is not only running to better a city he loves, but to restore a family name tarnished by his uncle.
     
     A Family Legacy
     Before February 2008, the Thornton name had been synonymous with community service in Kirkwood.
     Jayson Thornton's grandfather, George Thornton, was known for voluntarily picking up trash in Meacham Park. George Thornton was recognized by city leaders for picking up more than 500 lbs. of trash in a single event.
     "We are just deep in this community," Jayson Thornton said. "We love Meacham Park. We love Kirkwood. So it's just something that's important. It's not anything new to the residents that Jayson Thornton is running for City Council because that's what my family is all about - giving back to a community that's given us so much."
     The family's reputation made Charles Thornton's massacre a stunning blow for many Kirkwood residents.
     Kirk Hawkins has lived in Kirkwood since 1974. He remembers that when he was in high school on Kirkwood's track team Charles Thornton came back from college and volunteered to help coach the team.
     "I could not be more shocked," Hawkins said after the shooting spree. "It couldn't be a further change in personality for him. He was always an outgoing and friendly guy. He was always smiling."
     Thornton hopes his campaign, and the job he would do if elected, will bring back those smiles again when people hear his family name.
     "The main focus is that we have moved beyond the tragedy of our past and we are marching toward the triumph of our future," Thornton said. "This campaign is a symbol of the great healing and the moving forward of one Kirkwood united toward doing things for the residents."
     
     Meacham Park
     A supporter of Jayson Thornton wore an "End Eminent Domain Abuse" button on his jacket during a campaign rally in Meacham Park on Saturday. The button is a difficult reminder of what many residents feel was stolen from them not so long ago.
     The proud community once stood on 158 acres. Its founder, Elzey E. Meacham, bought the land in 1892 and named many of its streets - Attucks, Chicago, Memphis - after prominent figures and places in black history and culture.
     In 1991, residents of Kirkwood and Meacham Park voted in favor of annexing the community into Kirkwood.
     Shortly after the annexation, Kirkwood declared eminent domain on approximately one-third of Meacham Park. The land was cleared for a big shopping development that houses a Lowe's, Wal-Mart and Target.
     While Kirkwood spent about $4 million to improve Meacham Park's infrastructure, the wounds remain. Many residents still feel cheated out of their homes, freedom and culture.
     The shopping center creates a barrier between Meacham Park and the rest of Kirkwood. With Interstate 44 to the east, Interstate 270 to the south and the shopping center to the west, Meacham Park is landlocked. There is only one way in and out. Most Kirkwood residents can go for months without seeing or thinking about the community.
     Throw in Kirkwood's style of government, and it is easy to relate to Meacham Park residents' feeling of isolation - the same isolation some call a factor in Charles Thornton's rampage.
     Kirkwood has an at-large voting system. There are no wards or districts so Meacham Park is not guaranteed a voice in government. In fact, Jayson Thornton said, it hasn't had government representation since the annexation.
     "Whenever you have two communities coming together like that all of a sudden, it's kind of like an arranged marriage," Thornton said. "It takes a while to stop being individuals and start being a couple. ... We've been neighbors for almost 100 years and now we're one community. So it takes some time."
     
     Turning Around a Tragedy
     Lindbergh Boulevard stretches for more than 30 miles through the heart of St. Louis County - from the extreme north to the extreme south of the county limits. The only exception is the 2-mile stretch through Kirkwood, named Kirkwood Road.
     This stretch of road houses one of the St. Louis area's most popular entertainment districts.
     It is here that Lindbergh/Kirkwood Road - one of the busiest roadways in St. Louis - has traffic stopped for the occasional train at tracks through an Amtrak station. Swanky lofts rise up over posh bars next to mom-and-pop stores in antique buildings, giving the area an eclectic mix of modern and old.
     Find a parking spot and you can grab dinner at any number of locally owned restaurants, then hit a custard stand for dessert before taking in a nightcap with music at a variety of bars - all within a two-block walk.
     Sitting in the middle of this adult play-land is Kirkwood City Hall. Six years ago, it became the Kirkwood's most gory crime scene. After the police tape was removed, it became an impromptu shrine to those lost in the shooting spree.
     Now, it is once again plain old City Hall. Where once people stopped to stare, even years after the tragedy, it is just another building again - perhaps a sign that Kirkwood is ready to move on, and even welcome a Thornton back into City Hall.
     "Any person that has a desire to hold animosity against a person who had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with an incident, has to go back and pray another prayer," said Harriet Baker, a Jayson Thornton supporter.
     Robert Kokenyesi also supports Thornton.
     "I was here six years ago. I think its time to put all that behind us and look at the candidate, what he stands for, and judge him on his own qualifications, on his own goals, and I think he's eminently qualified," Kokenyesi said. "He has the interest of all Kirkwood citizens in mind and that's why I'm going to vote for him."
     
     Googling Kirkwood
     Charles Thornton's shooting spree is not the only high-profile crime in the past eight years with a Kirkwood dateline on it.
     In July 2005, a St. Louis police sergeant was gunned down in Meacham Park, an incident that first shed light on the area's racial and isolation issues.
     In January 2007, Michael Devlin was arrested at his Kirkwood apartment. Inside, police found Ben Ownby, who had been kidnapped four days earlier, and Shawn Hornbeck, who had disappeared in 2002. The arrest and the boys' safe return gained international headlines and became know as the "Missouri Miracle."
     In September 2010, Kirkwood resident Bradley Cook was one of five men charged in the sexual torture of a mentally deficient female sex slave. The case took on an even more sensational twist when Cook was accused of a murder-for-hire plot against the case's prosecuting attorney.
     While there is no link between any of the cases, Jayson Thornton said he is tired of hearing and seeing negative things associated with Kirkwood.
     "One of the reasons that I really wanted to run is I'm tired of seeing the Google results when you type in Kirkwood, Mo.," Thornton said. "You type in Kirkwood, Mo. and you get the craziest things that pop up as a Google result, and I'm praying and hoping that if elected, when you type in Kirkwood, the Google result will be a positive story that shows a strong community that is overcoming tragedy and is really going to do something big."
     
     Healing Through Football
     The sound of construction equipment dominates the area around the Kirkwood High School football stadium. Construction crews are building a multilevel press box that will be one of the nicest in Missouri.
     It's a fitting addition for a team whose fan support resembles that from small-town America, where the entire town packs the bleachers for Friday Night Lights in the fall.
      Kirkwood's Thanksgiving Day rivalry with neighboring Webster Groves routinely packs thousands of fans into the stands. The rivalry, boasted by both schools as the longest-standing high school rivalry west of the Mississippi, has been chronicled by ESPN.
     The pride reached an all-time high when the Pioneers captured the first state football championship in the program's 115-year history in 2012.
     Thornton remembers the feeling in the entire city that night and hopes it is a sign of things to come.
     "Kirkwood is special," Thornton said. "We are Kirkwoodians. It's a term you don't understand until you are here. When the football team won that championship, there were segments of all of Kirkwood represented on that football team. There were residents of Meacham Park and residents all over and we came together, excited, because you saw a representation of how the whole city working together can achieve greatness. Not just on a football field, but we can do it in City Hall, we can do it on the school board. So it's a representation that it does work and it can work.
     "We can get together. Now this campaign is a chance to keep it going."