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Kirkwood's Journey: City attorney looks at his remarkable survival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sometimes, in his dreams, Kirkwood City Attorney John Hessel is back in City Hall. He is reading exhibits into the record when the commotion starts.

He runs, only this time maybe he runs toward a different door. Maybe he can't get to it in time. Maybe the man holding two guns cuts him off. In every dream, he does something just a little different.

In every dream, he dies.

But in real life Hessel lived. He ran at the right time, threw chairs at Charles "Cookie" Thornton while thinking about the graduation and grandchildren he might never see and then dashed out of the council room as Thornton tripped over a body of a victim.

Two years after the shootings, the night of Feb. 7, 2008, continues to reverberate for Hessel. And the combative city attorney remains a controversial figure with some in Kirkwood. Recently, Hessel spoke to a reporter about how he felt in the aftermath of the shootings. At that time, some residents were pushing to delay the mayoral election and questioned Hessel's legal judgment in saying the election should go forward. Hessel said he won't deal with those residents who "vilified" him and have not apologized.

Hessel remains a subject of criticism. Earlier this month, the leader of a meeting in Meacham Park, where Thornton lived, read and criticized a defiant statement that Hessel made after the shooting -- that he would wear "the same suit, the same shirt, the same tie" to a City Council meeting as a way to show that Thornton had not prevailed.

The 'Cookie Wall'

Before that evening, Hessel hadn't seen Thornton since late summer 2007. It was July, and Thornton was picketing, a lone figure on the sidewalk in front of the city attorney's house. He wore a placard accusing Hessel and other city officials of "plantation-style politics."

Thornton had picketed in front of Hessel's downtown law office at Lewis, Rice, Fingersh. But this was his home, and it was a Sunday, and his daughter's birthday. Hessel was fed up and obtained a restraining order requiring Thornton to stay 1,000 feet away. The next time Hessel saw Thornton was Feb. 7, for about 73 seconds, looking down the barrel of a gun.

Thornton had grown frustrated with City Hall, but was he capable of murdering the city officials he had become so embittered against?

Most said no. But Public Works Director Kenneth Yost, one of the first to be shot when Thornton went on his killing rampage, had become so fearful of Thornton he had put up a partition in his office. The partition was designed to keep people from being able to come back into the department. People in City Hall called it the "Cookie Wall."

On the night of Feb. 7, after reports of gunfire at City Hall, the first question that came to Police Chief Jack Plummer's mind as he raced to the scene was: Is it Cookie? It was the first question that came to almost everyone's mind, including Thornton's family and friends.

The night of Feb. 7

It was just moments into the weekly City Council meeting. The Pledge of Allegiance had been recited, the roll had been called. Hessel was reading exhibits into the public record that Thursday evening. He had read exhibits into the record thousands of times. He figured he would do it thousands more.

He did not know that, a little earlier, Thornton had left a note for his brother saying, "The Truth will win in the end," and was on his way to City Hall with a large caliber revolver.

He did not know Thornton was outside City Hall, grabbing Police Sgt. William Biggs' gun after having shot him to death, nor that Biggs had somehow pressed the emergency button on his radio, no doubt saving lives.

The room was filled with 30 or 40 citizens who had come out for a public hearing. When Hessel heard Thornton's voice, he didn't think much of it. Thornton had been to many meetings in the past. But Hessel turned to see Thornton standing a mere two steps from Police Officer Tom Ballman, holding a placard in front of himself. Then Thornton dropped the placard, and Hessel saw he was holding two guns. Thornton lifted one and shot Ballman in the head.

"For an instant, I thought, this can't be real," Hessel said. "This is him playing some kind of game. Then I saw Tom Ballman slump over, and I knew that this was the worst nightmare. And then he shot Ken Yost. I saw Ken go down."

Some witnesses later told police that Thornton shouted he was going to get the mayor, but the audiotape records him shouting "Hands in the air!" more than 20 times as he cornered and shot his victims.

What happened next was painfully clear and agonizingly slow for Hessel. Later, he would have guessed the whole thing lasted 15 minutes. The police told him it was about a minute and 13 seconds.

Hessel dropped behind the desk. He saw Mayor Michael Swoboda get up and push his chair back. The mayor was walking or running, Hessel couldn't remember, and Hessel said he heard a shot and saw Swoboda fall. He heard a shot to his right, and later learned that it had hit Council member Connie Karr. There was a small silence, and then another shot, and that had hit Councilman Mike Lynch.

Still behind the desk then, "I knew it was eerily close to me," Hessel said.

In the past few years, Thornton and Hessel had not gotten along. Hessel's name had been plastered all over the placards Thornton wore. He has no idea why he wasn't one of the first to be shot. Divine intervention? Hessel doesn't know, but he said his father had died 10 years earlier, to the day.

"I'm convinced in my own mind that (his father) helped me, told me to get up and move, because I felt something push me and then I got up and ran ... I ran past Tom Ballman, past Ken Yost, and I saw Swoboda. I didn't see anybody else, except as I got closer to the door, I looked back and I saw Charles Thornton coming this way."

At the second or third row of chairs from the end, Thornton and Hessel met.

"I said, 'Cookie don't do it, don't do it.' I didn't know what else to do, so I picked up a chair and threw it at him. And for whatever reason, it happened to hit his arms, and he hesitated.

"I remember thinking I'm going to die ... I'm thinking I'm going to miss my youngest daughter's graduation ... and my grandchildren. I got mad so I picked up a second chair, and I walked towards him and I hit him as hard as I could with it. And I picked up a third chair, and I hit him again, as hard as I could. He's still got two guns, and I knew the element of surprise was going to escape me."

Later Hessel would describe looking into Thornton's eyes as though he was looking into a shark. They were empty and menacing, devoid of emotion, like a person gone mad. They were terrifying, he said.

Hessel ran to the opposite side of the room, towards a closed door. He knew he didn't have time to open the door, so he cut back, to the middle of the room, back towards the main entrance. Hessel looked back over his shoulder to see Thornton chasing after him. And then Thornton fell.

"He's chasing after me, and he gets right to where Ken Yost and Tom Ballman are, and he falls down," Hessel said, shaking his head and choking up. "It's not like he trips and falls. He just falls down. I will never forget it....I think Ken Yost knocked him over."

Hessel ran out the door and thought momentarily about leaping the railing. Thinking better of it, he dashed to the steps and slammed right into a police officer coming up the stairs. Another police officer ran past. The officers, Det. Stephen Geyer and Sgt. Paul Faulstich, advanced to the doorway to the chamber where they exchanged fire with Thornton. Thornton went down as the officers entered the chamber. The audiotape records a fusillade of bullets followed by 10 seconds of silence and then one final shot. Chief Plummer says that Sgt. Faulstich saw Thornton move and fired the fatal shot.

"It was textbook, textbook," Chief Plummer said later.

Moments after it all began, five people and the killer were dead. The mayor would die later, in the summer.

In the aftermath

The aftermath of the shootings was intense, both for grieving families and for the remaining City Hall officials. Elections were around the corner, and supporters of Karr, a candidate for mayor, were deeply disappointed that she would not have a chance to change City Hall.

Hessel's legal opinion that the elections should continue triggered angry outbursts at meetings, and Hessel found himself coming under intense personal criticism.

The shootings were "brutal and horrific," he said, "and then I was personally attacked by a bunch of people without any forewarnings with unfounded criticism."

"I never imagined I would be vilified or treated in that way," he said. "These people have no concept of what we went through. I forgive them for their lack of understanding. Having said that, there are some people I will not speak to until they personally apologize to me ... I still feel the same way two years later ... I don't have any bitterness. I just won't deal with them. That was probably the lowest point." 

Like other city officials, Hessel says, "I personally don't see Kirkwood as having a race issue." He is especially emphatic that Thornton's actions were not based on race.

"I have never believed that the shooting of Feb. 7 was a race issue," he said. "Cookie Thornton thought it was a race issue ... It was not about race, but it was about Charles Thornton."

Hessel said he was "not offended by the dialogue" about race in the community, but added, "I suggest that certain people injected themselves in the dialogue without knowing anything about Kirkwood."

Hessel said he thinks about the people who died that night in the City Hall room. The carpet has been replaced, the wall plastered over again. Hessel still sits, providing legal counsel to city officials, and he still reads exhibits into the public record.

Lucky to be alive doesn't come close to describing how he feels. Hessel thinks about the people who went to City Hall that evening with dishes still in the sink, e-mails unanswered and all the other small, seemingly trivial things they thought they would put off that night and get to tomorrow.

"That's a thought that very rarely escapes me," he said. "We have to remember that sometimes tomorrow doesn't come."

The reporting team, from the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, includes William H. Freivogel, director of the school and a regular Beacon contributor; Jaclyn Brenning, a reporter-in-residence;

Kirkwood’s Journey

This article is part of a series on Kirkwoodians' efforts to understand how race affects their city and what role it might have played in the City Hall shootings two years ago. Read more stories about Kirkwood's Journey . The series is part of the Beacon's Race, Frankly project. 

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.