The Lesson of Kirkwood

It was just another city council meeting in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, Missouri, population about 28,000. It was a Thursday evening and the session was just being called to order after the Pledge of Allegiance was recited. Although the council meetings in Kirkwood were occasionally immersed in controversy, they were reflective of a thousand other cities and towns across the country in which issues over zoning, parks, business and residential growth are often discussed with heated intensity. The mayor, council members and town staff had no reason to believe that this night would be any different. Certainly, they couldn't have imagined that in a matter of minutes 5 people would be shot dead in and around the building and 2 others would be severely wounded.

While Mayor Mike Swoboda, 69, was gaveling the meeting to begin, Lee "Cookie" Thornton, 52, a man well-known for his angry tirades at council sessions, was in the parking lot shooting to death Sgt. William Biggs, 50, a 20 year veteran of the Kirkwood Police Department. He took the slain officer's gun and burst into the council chambers, killing Police Officer Tom Ballman, 37, the department's spokesman and community service officer who was on duty at the meeting. Witnesses said Thornton began yelling, "Shoot the mayor," as he started his bloody rampage.

"We crawled under the chairs and just laid there," said a severely shaken reporter who was covering the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Before the crazed gunman was brought down by other officers arriving at the scene he had killed 3 more people and wounded another two.

Among the dead were council members, Connie Karr, 51, in her second term and intending to run for mayor; Michael Lynch, 63, who had been on the council since 2000; and Kenneth Yost, 61, who served as the Public Works Director for the city. The mayor was wounded as was Todd Smith, a 36 year-old reporter. Mayor Swoboda, in critical condition, is serving his second and final term as mayor because of term limits. He is known by some as "Mr. Ubiquitous" because he shows up at every event. Most residents had good words for the mayor's commitment to the city and his many accomplishments. Yet, there was one resident who harbored a deep hatred for a man whom he believed was responsible for his torment.

Thornton was irate over zoning decisions that went against him, was furious over dozens of parking tickets that led to some $2,000 in fines and was livid over City Council attempts to curb his ranting at city meetings.

His outbursts during meetings had twice resulted in his forcible removal and arrests for disorderly conduct. Late last month, a judge threw out his lawsuit claiming the city infringed on his freedom of speech. Some say that was the final setback that put him over the edge. Reading about this horrific tragedy makes me wonder why someone didn't take steps to keep it from happening. How many signs do we need to forewarn us of danger? This man Thornton had been behaving like a maniac at council meetings for years. He had been handcuffed and literally dragged from chambers as he cursed the mayor and other city officials. At one point, the council considered banning him permanently, ultimately deciding he had a right to be there, but, because he had been disruptive at the podium, was prohibited from speaking.  

Yes, hindsight is 20/20 and there's no purpose in trying to second guess those who didn't insulate themselves from someone who appeared to be emotionally deranged. However, we can and should learn something from this homicidal rampage.

The police officers were the first targets because the killer knew they were armed. Once he removed the threat from them, he knew he could begin to satisfy his malevolent thirst for revenge, unimpeded. The town attorney threw a couple of chairs at the madman, warding off some shots directed at him. Suppose that attorney was armed? How many lives might he have saved?

Suppose there had been a police officer in civilian clothes at the meeting? Last year, a former police officer at a Colorado church drew her weapon and killed a rampaging gunman before he could take any more lives.

We can't read anyone's mind, but we can read their behavior. Those 5 innocent people deserved to go home to their families that night. One inconspicuous police officer might have made it possible for at least some of them to do so.

Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas.  Email Bob.