Reporters Dodge Bullets in Kirkwood

Article excerpt

"I'll bet it was Cookie Thornton." That's what some people in Kirkwood said when they first heard there was a shooting at the Kirkwood City Hall the evening of Feb. 7.

Indeed, it was Charles "Cookie" Thornton. He had gone berserk, killing five and wounding two. Three reporters covering the city council meeting were in the crossfire.

Thornton was a resident of Meacham Park, the predominately black enclave in southeast Kirkwood. He had been publicly feuding with city officials for several years over parking tickets and other issues he perceived as racial harassment. He referred to the city as a "plantation" and harassed the officials in return--maligning them at meetings, suing the city and, when that failed, resorting to murder. Two police officers, three city officials and Thornton himself were killed during the bloody rampage. The mayor was gravely wounded. A reporter was shot in the hand.

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The Kirkwood killings made national news as yet another in a series of lethal shootings by deranged people. But it was a local tragedy, and the media here did good work in piecing together the story, often personal, that stunned the usually placid town of 27,000.

In the first few hours, news-hungry television viewers surfed the local channels as news crews scrambled to get bits of information.

Later, reaction stories exposed the racial divide in the upscale, 90-percent-white affluent suburb. Scores of citizens attended meetings of "dialogue and understanding." Still, there was political infighting between the old guard and non-establishment types over whether to hold the April 8 municipal election, or postpone it, to allow time for someone else to replace mayoral candidate Connie Karr, who was a council member and one of those killed.

Three reporters take cover

Todd Smith, reporter for the weekly Suburban Journals, was wounded in the right hand by Thornton.

"I saw him come in and start shooting," Smith told SJR. He was holding his laptop and thought Thornton meant to kill him too, "I was moving around. His shot grazed my stomach and hit my hand."

After the shooting was over, Smith was able to call his paper and say they should send a replacement, as he was being taken to a hospital.

He was quoted later, saying, "This shouldn't happen in Kirkwood." He took off work for a month to recover and has since been assigned to another job, doing online news.

Marty Harris, a reporter for the weekly Webster-Kirkwood Times, was sitting in the second row, behind the city's Director of Public Works Ken Yost. Quoted in her own newspaper, she said Thornton walked up on the right side of the chamber and had two guns. One, it was later learned, was from police Sgt. Bill Biggs, whom Thornton had fatally shot outside the building.

"My initial reaction was, 'This must be another one of his pranks.' After he shot Officer (Tom) Ballman in the head, he took a few steps around to where Ken Yost was sitting and shot Ken in the head.... then I saw the blood," Harris was quoted.

Harris had blood splattered on her sweater. She was so shaken she decided on the spot she did not want to return to the Kirkwood City Hall.

The third reporter, Janet McNichols, is a correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She had known Thornton from covering Kirkwood meetings for several years and often exchanged pleasantries with him.

Just as the meeting was starting, McNichols said, she heard Thornton's high-pitched voice from the rear, saying, "I've got a gun. …