KIRKWOOD, Mo. – A steady stream of people walked by a growing, makeshift memorial in front of City Hall this weekend, where a gunman’s rampage left two injured and six dead, including the gunman. Meanwhile, less than five minutes away, at another gathering, in Kirkwood’s predominantly black Meacham Park neighborhood, residents discussed the growing racial tension in the city that may have been a factor in Charles “Cookie” Thornton’s deadly rampage.
Ben Gordon, a black man from Webster Groves, called Thornton a hero and said he was a soldier who paid the price for liberty.
“He opened a business,” Gordon said. “He went to court, but the system failed him. … We are sorry, we grieve, but (Kirkwood leaders) share in this responsibility.”
For years, the tree-lined streets of Kirkwood’s affluent neighborhoods masked the community’s racial issues. Many residents of Meacham Park feel they are not adequately represented at Kirkwood City Hall and that city officials don’t care about their area.
Several high-profile crimes have rocked this suburb 15 miles west of St. Louis.
In July 2005, Kirkwood police Sgt. William McEntee was gunned down in Meacham Park. The killer, Kevin Johnson, was sentenced to death in January this year.
In January 2007, Michael Devlin was arrested in a case that made worldwide headlines when two boys, one of whom had been missing for four years, were found alive in his Kirkwood apartment.
On Thursday, Charles Thornton shot to death two Kirkwood police officers and three city officials. Mayor Mike Swoboda is in critical condition with two gunshot wounds to the head, and local reporter Todd Smith was shot in the hand. Kirkwood police officers shot and killed Thornton at City Hall.
While the Devlin case is an exception, race may have been a factor in the other two cases. Johnson, a black man, shot and killed McEntee, a white officer. Johnson’s attorneys argued that their client was temporarily insane, distraught from the death of his younger brother just hours before the shooting.
Thornton, who was black, had received more than 100 parking tickets and citations for other violations from Kirkwood officials regarding his contracting business. He had been removed from Kirkwood city meetings for being disruptive, and 10 days before the shootings, a federal judge dismissed his lawsuit against the City of Kirkwood, ruling that the city did not violate his right to free speech.
Almost everybody who knew Thornton said the Thursday night gunman was not the Thornton they knew.
“He was a knight in shining armor,” said Anna Ursery, a St. Louis County Court employee. “He was always a gentleman.”
Lorraine Williams went to high school with Thornton and is a lifelong Kirkwood resident who grew up in Meacham Park. She said Thornton was a health nut and never used drugs.
“I was shocked,” Williams said. “At first I heard a disgruntled man walked into city hall and started shooting. I thought, ‘Please don’t let that be Cookie.'”
Another man, who for anonymity, recalled running into Thornton at Denny’s. When the man got up to pay the bill, the waitress told him Thornton had already taken care of it.
“That’s just the kind of guy he was,” the man said.
So what made Thornton, who was well-respected and well-liked in the community, snap? Was it the culmination of frustration from trying to fight a losing battle against City Hall? Did it have racial overtones? Or did the crime have a combination of both?
Those are questions Kirkwood residents are trying to answer while they heal their wounds.
“The business of the city will continue and we will recover, but we’ll never be the same,” Kirkwood Deputy Mayor Tim Griffin said. “The healing process starts now.”
Kirkwood residents are hoping for healing on all fronts.
“Obviously, there are problems that people have had that need to be addressed,” Williams said. “I love Kirkwood. I’m not going to move. I’m not interested in moving. It is a great place to live.”