This month I will share stories on Black History Month – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. History isn’t always pretty and sometimes we sanitize that which makes us uncomfortable. Here I will share all facets of Black History and try to focus on people not necessarily in the history books.
The Bad – Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton
This one is interesting to me because I work with contractors and local government. I understand zoning laws and know that many people will skirt the codes if they can get away with it.
Cookie Thornton, a resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, was born on Dec. 23, 1955, one of nine children, He grew up in unincorporated Meacham Park, a tight-knit black community which was sliding into decay.
Thornton graduated from Northeast Missouri State University and stayed in Meacham Park, starting his asphalt and demolition business. He parked his equipment in this parents’ lot and took care of his neighbor’s driveways for free.
In 1991, the more prosperous and white area of Kirkwood voted to annex Meacham Park and Thornton was thrilled. It would benefit his neighborhood and bring him more business. He became involved with the Kirkwood housing authority board, worked with kids at a youth club, read to children, and ran for city council (he lost).
Thornton benefited from the development as his company received contracts. Two-thirds of Meacham Park was to be razed for big-box development, including Section 8 housing. Thornton praised the Lord for the proposal. However, the mayor at the time, Marge Schramm said there were never any promises to Thornton. The developers had the final decision on who to hire. There were even reports that Thornton never bid on the contracts.
In addition to losing the contract, Thornton started getting ticketed for parking his equipment in residential areas and dumping debris on vacant lots. Thornton pleaded guilty to some of the violations and promised to bring his property to code within two years. He promised to pay the fines, but never did and filed for bankruptcy in late 1999. As part of the process of getting out of debt, he would pay $4,425 a month for five years. But he stopped making the payments within months and moved his business from a commercial zoned area back to the residential area.
Thornton started going to city council meetings alleging racism. His friends and family thought he was just mad about the fines. But it was more than that. He had power of attorney over his parents’ finances. Because of this, he was able to take his parents’ properties, their house in Meacham Park and their retirement home in St. Petersburg, Florida, and refinanced them. HIs dump trucks had been repossessed and the IRS took out two liens against him for more than $200,000. He owed over $10,000 in child support.
But Thornton kept smiling and telling those close to him that everything was just fine.
Even the city tried to help him but offering to erase all his fines if he would just be less confrontational with them. He refused – demanding to see them in court. He would sue the city and lose.
On Feb. 7, 2008, Thornton went to his friend Chuck Runnels’ home. He gave Runnels some money and photos from a civic group they started. Runnels though Thornton was going out of town, so he didn’t bother asking why. They had dinner together and watched NFL highlights. As he got up to leave, Thornton said “Glory be to God” and left for the city council meeting.
Thornton parked near Kirkwood City Hall and saw police officer Sergeant William Biggs walking to get dinner. He confronted Biggs and shot him with a .44 magnum revolver, killing Biggs instantly. As Thornton fired, the officer was able to hit a distress signal on his radio. Thornton then took Bigg’s .40 caliber handgun and went into the council chambers. The meeting had just started and concealing his weapons, got close to his victims.
First to be killed in the chambers was police officer Tom Ballman. Thornton continued shooting others at close range while saying “Shoot the mayor.” He fatally shot council members Connie Karr and Michael Lynch, and Ken Yost, the public works director. Mayor Mike Swoboda was shot twice in the head. Thinking he was dead, Thornton went after the city’s attorney, John Hessel. Hessel threw chairs at him and was able to escape. Two police officers arrived at the council chambers and were fired upon by Thornton. Returning fire, they shot Thornton twice and he died.
Five people were killed and two were wounded. The mayor was taken to the hospital in critical condition. He returned to city hall on April 18 for his last council meeting since his term was expiring. He later died on Sept. 6 in hospice care. He had cancer and his health declined quickly after the shooting.
Thornton left a note on his bed saying The truth will come out in the end” or “The truth will win out in the end.”
Cooperman, Jeannette. (2008, April 24). The Kirkwood Shootings: Why Did Cookie Thornton Kill? St. Louis Magazine. Retrieved February 9, 2017, from https://www.stlmag.com/Why-Did-Cookie-Thornton-Kill/
Deere, Stephen and Moore, Doug. (2008, May 4). Charles Lee ‘Cookie’ Thornton: Behind the smile. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved February 9, 2017, from http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/charles-lee-cookie-thornton-behind-the-smile/article_be96f13c-78b9-11df-bfdc-0017a4a78c22.html
Kirkwood City Council shooting. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 9, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirkwood_City_Council_shooting