Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton entered the Kirkwood City Council chambers Thursday night with three targets in mind: Mayor Mike Swoboda, Public Works Director Ken Yost and City Attorney John Hessel.
Of that, Hessel—alive today because of a bold impulse to fight back—is absolutely certain.
The troubled relationship between Thornton and Kirkwood’s city attorney of 23 years can be traced to the role Hessel played in enforcing city codes. Thornton’s infractions ranged from illegal dumping to improper parking to failure to obtain licenses for his demolition business.
Over the years, Hessel saw Thornton becoming increasingly contentious. Outbursts at City Council meetings led to forcible removal from council chambers and Thornton’s arrest. The thrust of his objections—once confined to protest placards—became more personal and bitter.
Hessel said he and the city went out of the way to calm their nemesis. The city, Hessel said, even offered to waive the $20,000 in fines Thornton had amassed.
Thornton wouldn’t budge.
Last spring, Hessel said, Thornton moved the relationship to a new, more troubling level when he began picketing in front of Hessel’s downtown St. Louis law office and, also, before his home in Kirkwood.
Hessel, whose firm, Lewis, Rice & Fingersh, also represents the Post-Dispatch, responded by obtaining an order of protection barring Thornton from coming within 1,000 feet of his home or office.
As best Hessel can recall, Thornton last attended a council meeting six months ago. Then last month a federal judge rejected Thornton’s allegation that Kirkwood had violated his constitutional rights by physically removing and arresting him for disrupting meetings.
On Thursday night, Hessel, seated on the council dais, heard Thornton’s voice and looked at the same instant Thornton shot Kirkwood police Officer Tom Ballman point blank in the chest.
Hessel dropped below his seat as Thornton moved methodically along the dais. When he saw Swoboda fall he made a decision.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to sit here and let you shoot me,’” he said.
At the rear of the chambers, Hessel and Thornton paused. Hessel saw police coming through a rear door.
“He was four feet away with both guns pointed at me. I said, ‘Cookie, don’t do this, don’t kill me. I’m not going to let you do this. I’m not going to let you kill me.’ I picked up a chair and threw it at him.”
The chair threw Thornton off balance long enough for Hessel to start back to the front of the room. On the way, he threw a second plastic chair and then another and another.
As Thornton gave chase, Hessel said, he eyed the two doors leading to the front of the chamber, trying to remember which was unlocked. He leaped over the body of Public Works Director Ken Yost.
As Hessel made it through the door, he heard a hail of gunfire, presumably the police shooting Thornton.
He died without firing a single shot at Hessel, for reasons Hessel can’t explain.
“As I told my family last night, when he was pointing those guns at me, my life flashed before me. I thought I was going to die. I had to fight for my life,” he said.