MO gunman kills 5 in City Council meeting

Two police officers are among six dead in Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.
Two police officers are among six dead in Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.
Charles Lee Thornton, here in an undated photo, was identified by witnesses as the gunman who opened fire.
Charles Lee Thornton, here in an undated photo, was identified by witnesses as the gunman who opened fire.

A gunman killed five people and wounded two Thursday night at a police station and City Council meeting in suburban St. Louis before officers shot and killed him, police said.

Charles Lee Thornton, here in an undated photo, was identified by witnesses as the gunman who opened fire.

Two police officers were among the dead, said Tracy Panus, spokeswoman for the St. Louis County police.

Witnesses identified the gunman as Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, a man who they said regularly disrupted meetings to make complaints, though he didn't make it clear what his concerns were.

Police have not identified the suspect. No one has made an official statement on Thornton's behalf, but his brother said Thornton "went to war tonight with the people that were of the government."

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, citing police, said the dead included police officers Tom Ballman and William Biggs, Councilwoman Connie Karr and Public Works Director Kenneth Yost.

"I heard [Thornton] yell something about a gun, and I looked up, and I saw officer Ballman had been shot in the head," said Janet McNichols, a correspondent with the Post-Dispatch, in a video posted on the newspaper's Web site.

"Then I looked right in front of me, and Mr. Yost had been shot in the head too."

Mayor Mike Swoboda was wounded and in critical condition, and Suburban Journals newspaper reporter Todd Smith was in satisfactory condition, St. John's Mercy Hospital spokesman Bill McShane told The Associated Press.

The shootings began shortly after 7 p.m. just outside the Kirkwood City Hall when a man approached a police officer in the parking lot of the Kirkwood police station and fatally shot him, Panus said. The officer died at the scene.

The suspect then went into the City Council chambers and killed a second police officer before fatally shooting three city officials who were attending the meeting, Panus said.

Kirkwood police officers returned fire, Panus said, killing the suspect.

Thornton sued the city of Kirkwood after he was arrested twice for disorderly conduct at two council meetings in 2006. He later was convicted, according to the First Amendment Center, a group that says it works to preserve First Amendment freedoms.

An eyewitness to the shootings told CNN that Thornton had disrupted City Council meetings frequently in the past.

"He would make inappropriate noises, heehawing like a donkey. He would make derogatory comments towards the director of public works, the city attorney and the mayor," Alan Hopefl said Friday. "None of it seemed to make any sense as far as him trying to make a point, as far as why he was really there and what his major complaints were."

Thornton's brother, Gerald, told CNN affiliate KMOV-TV in St. Louis that his brother had serious grievances with the city government.

"The only way that I can put it in a context that you might understand is that my brother went to war tonight with the people that were of the government that was putting torment and strife into his life," Thornton told KMOV.

"And he had spoke on it as best he could in the courts, and they denied him all access to the rights of protection, and therefore he took it upon himself to go to war and end the issue."

According to a Thursday article written by the First Amendment Center -- before the shooting -- Thornton asked to speak during public-comment portions of 2006 meetings on specific topics but instead discussed his alleged harassment by city officials.

In his lawsuit, Thornton said his First Amendment rights had been violated. But in a January 28 ruling, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry said that the public-comment portion of a meeting could be reserved for certain groups and topics of discussion.

Rather than discussing the subject at hand, Perry wrote, "Thornton engaged in personal attacks against the mayor, Kirkwood and the city council. ... 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," according to the First Amendment Center.

Bill Reineke, a builder and acquaintance of Thornton's for 15 years, said he sensed a change in him starting three months ago.

"He seemed to feel lately that things were going wrong," Reineke said. "He would run into City Hall once in a while during meetings, and he would talk about the plantation mentality of the mayor and board."

Reineke said Thornton had begun to hold grudges.

"I don't know what made him go off -- what made him twist -- but it's just a darn shame for everyone concerned," he said.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt responded to news of the shooting, saying, "Tonight our fellow Missourians in the city of Kirkwood were terrorized by a senseless and horrific crime at an open government meeting."

Blunt said, "I join Missourians tonight in praying for the victims, their families and friends, and everyone in the community of Kirkwood."

Kirkwood, a town of about 27,000 people, is about 10 miles west-southwest of St. Louis. Kirkwood's Web site bills the city as "Queen of the St. Louis Suburbs" with high property values and quality public schools.

It was also the scene of another high-profile recent criminal case. Pizzeria employee Michael Devlin pleaded guilty to charges, including kidnapping and sexual assault, after police found two missing boys in his Kirkwood apartment in January 2007. One of the boys was held for four years.

Copyright 2008 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.