KIRKWOOD, Mo. – The man who shot five people to death Thursday night at a City Council meeting, then was killed by police, may have been tipped over the edge by a federal judge’s decision that the council had the right to limit his speech. Charles Lee Thornton, a voluble critic of the council, killed two Kirkwood police officers two council members, the public works director and seriously wounded the mayor, police said.
Thornton killed Kirkwood Police Sgt. Bill Biggs in the parking lot outside the meeting, St. Louis County Police spokesman Tracy Panus said. He then entered the council chambers and shot to death Councilwoman Connie Karr, Councilman Michael Lynch, Public Works Director Ken Yost, and Kirkwood Police Officer Tom Ballman, Panus said.
Thornton critically wounded Mayor Mike Swoboda, shooting him in the head, and wounded Todd Smith, a reporter for the Suburban Journals, in the hand, Panus said. Kirkwood police then killed Thornton inside the council chambers, Panus said.
Swoboda was in critical condition this morning with a gunshot wound to the head. Todd Smith was in satisfactory condition.
Thornton had sued the City of Kirkwood in St. Louis Federal Court, claiming the city violated his First Amendment rights by having him removed from several meetings. Thornton spoke of his perceived harassment during a public discussion about business expansion in May 2006, his lawsuit stated.
Mayor Swoboda asked Thornton to leave and called the police, who charged him with disorderly conduct.
On Jan. 28 this year – 10 days before the fatal shootings – U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry dismissed Thornton’s lawsuit, ruling that because he spoke during a “limited public forum,” Kirkwood had the right to restrict his speech to the topic of business expansion.
“Because Thornton does not have a First Amendment right to engage in irrelevant debate and to voice repetitive, personal, virulent attacks against Kirkwood and its city officials during the comment portion of a city council public hearing, his claim fails as a matter of law,” Perry wrote.
Thornton repeated his actions at a city meeting in June 2006. At that meeting, Thornton started his speech with “jackass, jackass, jackass.” Thornton felt that Kirkwood officials harassed him about parking and zoning violations in relation to his contracting business. Witnesses said Thornton said he was looking for justice before he opened fire. Kirkwood is 15 miles west of St. Louis.
The New York Times reported that Thornton burst into the meeting and started shooting just after Mayor Swoboda had recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The Times also reported that Thornton’s brother said the city’s ticketing of Charles Thornton’s commercial vehicles sparked the rampage.