6 dead in Missouri city council shooting

Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, a St. Louis area man with a history of acrimony against city leaders, opened fire at a Kirkwood, Mo. council meeting on Feb. 7, 2008, killing two police officers and three other people before law enforcers fatally shot him.
Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, a St. Louis area man with a history of acrimony against city leaders, opened fire at a Kirkwood, Mo. council meeting on Feb. 7, 2008, killing two police officers and three other people before law enforcers fatally shot him.

KIRKWOOD, Mo. (CBS/AP) -- A gunman with a history of acrimony against city leaders opened fire at a council meeting Thursday night, killing two police officers and three city officials before law enforcers fatally shot him, police said.

Two police officers and three people attending the meeting were killed after the gunman rushed the council chambers and began firing, according to St. Louis County Police spokeswoman Tracy Panus. She said two others were wounded. Panus said no names of the victims would be released until a news conference scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday.

CBS News affiliate KMOV reporter Mike O'Connell reports that the victim in critical condition is Mayor Mike Swoboda, and that he is in intensive care at St. John's Mercy Hospital in Creve Coeur.

KMOV reports that the other victim was shot in the hand and is expected to recover.

Hospital spokesman Bill McShane said, declining to discuss the severity of the victims injuries, but said that the second victim was Suburban Journals newspaper reporter Todd Smith.

The gunman was fatally shot by Kirkwood police.

Panus said the gunman killed one officer outside the city hall, then walked into the chambers and shot another. He continued firing in the chambers, killing three attendees and wounding two others, she said. Names of the victims were not released.

"Tonight our fellow Missourians in the city of Kirkwood were terrorized by a senseless and horrific crime at an open government meeting," Gov. Matt Blunt said in a statement. "I join Missourians tonight in praying for the victims, their families and friends, and everyone in the community of Kirkwood."

Marty Harris, Associate Editor for the Webster-Kirkwood Times, said Thursday night's meeting began with Mayor Mike Swoboda calling the meeting to order. Council Member Connie Karr then led the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the mayor's call for the start of a public hearing on a zoning matter.

"Cookie Thornton then walked in, he said something ... something about justice, and then he showed two handguns," Harris said. "One was a large gun. I learned later that it was a .357 magnum."

Reporter Janet McNichols, who was covering the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the 7 p.m. meeting with about 30 people had just started when the shooter rushed into the council chambers and began opening fire with at least one weapon, the newspaper reported. He started yelling "shoot the mayor" while walking around and firing, hitting police officer Tom Ballman in the head, McNichols said.

The shooter then went after Public Works Director Kenneth Yost, who was sitting in front of Swoboda, and shot Yost in the head, McNichols said.

McNichols also said the shooter fired at City Attorney John Hessel, who tried to fight off the attacker by throwing chairs. The shooter then moved behind the desk where the council sits and fired more shots at council members.

The newspaper quoted McNichols as saying Swoboda, and council members Michael H.T. Lynch and Connie Karr also were hit. She identified the gunman as Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, a man she knows from covering the council. McNichols said Thornton was often a contentious presence; he had twice been convicted of disorderly conduct for disrupting meetings in May 2006.

Most of Thornton's ire was directed at the mayor and Yost, she said.

KMOV spoke with the gunman's brother about what prompted Charles "Cookie" Thornton to attack police and city officials.

"The only way that I can put into context that you might understand is that my brother went to war tonight with the people, the government that was putting torment and strife into his life," Gerald Thornton said. "He has spoke on it as best he could in the courts, and they denied all rights to the access of protection and he took it upon himself to go to war and end the issue."

KMOV reports that Thornton leaves behind a wife and a daughter.

Dozens of emergency vehicles were on the scene and an area of several blocks was cordoned off along a busy north-south corridor around the city hall.

Kirkwood is about 20 miles southwest of downtown St. Louis, just inside the I-270 loop. City Hall is located in a quiet area filled with condominiums, eateries and shops, and is not far from a dance studio and train station.

Mary Linhares, a teacher who lives about four blocks from City Hall, described the town as quiet and eclectic after walking down to the scene with her husband.

"It's like a small town in St. Louis," Linhares told The Associated Press. "You can call it Mayberry."

Thornton was well-known at Kirkwood City Hall, often making outrageous comments at public meetings, according to a 2006 article in the weekly Webster-Kirkwood Times.

The newspaper quoted Swoboda as saying in June 2006 that Thornton's contentious remarks over the years created "one of the most embarrassing situations that I have experienced in my many years of public service."

Swoboda's comments came during a council meeting attended by Thornton two weeks after Thornton was forcibly removed from the council chambers. The mayor said at the time that the council considered banning Thornton from future meetings but decided against it.

"The city council has decided that they will not lower themselves to Mr. Thornton's level," Swoboda said at the meeting. "We will act with integrity and continue to deal with him at these council proceedings. However we will not allow Mr. Thornton, or any other person, to disrupt these proceedings."

Thornton said during the meeting that he had been issued more than 150 tickets.

Thornton twice was arrested and later convicted for disorderly conduct for outbursts at two council meetings in 2006, often convinced the city was persecuting him. When allowed to speak during one meeting, he approached the podium with a posterboard with a picture of a donkey and began making harassing remarks about Swoboda.

In a federal lawsuit stemming from those meetings, Thornton, representing himself, insisted that Kirkwood officials violated his constitutional rights to free speech by barring him from speaking at the meetings. But a federal judge in St. Louis tossed out the suit Jan. 28, writing that "any restrictions on Thornton's speech were reasonable, viewpoint neutral, and served important governmental interests."

"Thornton engaged in personal attacks against the mayor, Kirkwood, and the city council," the judge noted in her opinion. "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."

The city's Web site suggests the community, with many of its homes dating to the early 20th century, "has long been known for its down home charm, community pride, nationally recognized schools, vibrant business community, and its involved residents."

The police department's chaplain, Father Robert Osborne of the local St. Peter Catholic Church, said law enforcers from several agencies quickly voiced anguish to him over the tragedy.

"They're all just so sad, shocked by this," Osborne said. "This doesn't happen in Kirkwood."

Despite its reputation locally for serenity, Kirkwood has grappled in recent years with certain crimes that have brought it unwanted attention.

Just down the street from City Hall is the Imo's pizzeria once managed by Michael Devlin, the man who kidnapped Shawn Hornbeck when the boy was just 11 in 2002 and held him for four years before authorities rescued Hornbeck from Devlin's Kirkwood apartment in January of last year. Rescued with Shawn was Ben Ownby, another teenager Devlin abducted just days before Devlin's arrest.

Those crimes netted Devlin multiple life terms on state charges, as well as 170 years behind bars on federal charges that he made pornography of Shawn.

City Hall also is about a block from a park now named for former Kirkwood police Sgt. William McEntee, a 43-year-old father of three when he was slain in 2005 by a man who witnesses said blamed police for the collapse death of his 12-year-old half-brother two hours earlier.

That gunman, Kevin Johnson, testified he was in a trancelike state when he shot McEntee, a 20-year veteran of the police force, at close range through the passenger window of his stopped patrol car while he was investigating reports of fireworks.

The wounded officer's car rolled a short distance, striking a parked car and a tree. McEntee was shot again after he stumbled out of the car.

Johnson was convicted in November of first-degree murder and last week was sentenced to death.

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The Associated Press and CBS News contributed to this report.