Today is the ninth anniversary of everything that can go wrong when a system of justice seems unjust or predatory to an individual on the edge.
On February 7, 2008, Cookie Thornton, a well-respected and widely loved figure, who was active in local charities, fired shots during a Kirkwood city council meeting, that killed five, including two police officers, and wounded two others; one of the two wounded victims, the mayor, later died. Thornton was shot and killed by police the night of the incident.
Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, was a lifelong resident of Meacham Park, an unincorporated, mostly African American community. In 1992, Kirkwood annexed the Meacham Park area. Upon annexation, the municipal codes of Kirkwood became the law for Meacham Park, which had previously lacked municipal codes.
St. Louis Magazine published a four-part series about the Kirkwood Shootings, part one of the series, "Why did Cookie Kill?" starts off with:
"In the initial shock, it seemed simple: Cookie Thornton had gone crazy. Then people started commenting, and it seemed even simpler: A black man had gotten fed up with bigotry and taken revenge. Then explanations started coming, and nothing was simple at all"
The complaints that surfaced during the Ferguson Protest about municipal courts were the same sort of things Cookie Thornton complained about. I didn't know Mr. Thornton, so I can't speak to his mental state, but every person has their breaking point. Mr. Thornton pleaded for help for years including at city council meetings about tickets and felt he was being treated unfairly, but it appears he was ignored. If someone had simply helped him better understand the rules of court, his trial de novo appeal rights, and the right to a jury trial, I wonder if he would have had a better outcome.
Claims of racism
Cookie Thornton accused the government of Kirkwood of racial discrimination and had been tied up in lawsuits with the city for nearly a decade. After the shooting, those in the community described Thornton as having snapped, gone insane or gone to war.
Excessive Municipal Fines and Court Cost
In 1996, Thornton had begun receiving citations from Kirkwood for violations of city codes. In June 1998, he pleaded guilty to six violations; and agreed to a five-phase plan to bring his property and his paving business into conformance with city codes within two years.
Thornton filed for bankruptcy in December 1999. During the bankruptcy process, he was put on a plan to get out of debt: he would pay $4,425 a month for five years. But Thornton stopped making the payments within four months and moved the portion of his business that had for a while occupied a rental property in a nearby commercially zoned area, back into his residentially zoned neighborhood.
Thornton never paid any of the fines from the 2001 and 2002 Kirkwood code violation cases. Thornton, despite having no education, training or experience in the practice of law, acted as his own attorney. The City of Kirkwood said in a state court memorandum in 2003, that by May 2002, Thornton had pled or was found guilty of more than 100 of 114 charges.
In 2005, the Missouri Court of Appeals opinion dismissing his suit against Kirkwood and Ken Yost for malicious prosecution and civil rights violations termed his brief "largely incomprehensible". After several years of the lawsuits, he declined an offer from the city to let his fines remain unpaid in exchange for dropping his last lawsuit against the city and no longer disrupting council meetings.
Residents speak out
The shooting cast a spotlight on the long-standing tension between Kirkwood and Meacham Park.
Linda Lockhart had grown up in St. Louis, and her family moved back in 1998 after living in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Linda Lockart who is black, and her husband, who is white, bought a house in a Kirkwood subdivision near a country club.
Lockhart and her husband were given a copy of the neighborhood Trust Agreement and Indenture of Restrictions, which laid out neighborhood rules regarding issues like yard maintenance and structure standards.
It also said this: “That no building shall at any time be occupied by Negroes or Malays, except in the capacity of bona fide servants or employees.”
When their children started going to Kirkwood High School, she said, both the subtle and the overt racism became even more apparent. “It was just the most painful experience we had ever been through,” Lockhart recalled.
“Nobody condoned Cookie,” Lockhart said. “It was wrong. But we understood why he felt that way.”
The Meacham Park Neighborhood Association (MPNA) met the afternoon following the shooting, February 8. More than 100 people, including Thornton's mother, and a "procession of ministers" who spoke at the meeting. Many spoke sympathetically of Thornton. Elder Harry Jones of Men and Women of Faith Ministries said
"This is something that took place over time, and perhaps it could have been avoided. There always has been a great divide between Kirkwood and Meacham Park."
Thornton's mother spoke last, saying
"We've got to do things the Bible way. I'm sad that this happened."
A blog entry that same day from a minister who used to live and work in Kirkwood provides some background about the relationship between Meacham Park and Kirkwood:
People who had lived in [Meacham Park] for generations were paid to move out so that Wal Mart could move in. [They] were made promises about how the money the city made from Wal Mart would be given to improve the living conditions in Meacham Park. When I met with the MPNA, there were residents who had been organizing and feeling frustrated for quite a while. They felt that the city officials were not following through on their promises and that the Meacham Park residents made a grave mistake in trusting the city officials….we were able to get our hands on some financial documents that flat out proved that the city promised money that they had not paid but there were legal loopholes that seemed insurmountable without a sea of money to devote to legal fees. When I stepped down from my work with Meacham Park, I knew that the frustrations were far from resolved.
In the end, it's always about the money, isn't it? It looks like the only reason Kirkwood was interested in annexing Meacham Park was to profit from a Wal-Mart development that certainly came with other developments. They displaced poor black residents from Meacham Park seemingly without any inconvenience to Kirkwood residents.
Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series
Portions republished from a previous post.