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Kirkwood's journey: Separating myths and realities about Meacham Park, Thornton, Part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Two men walked on the moon before Meacham Park had paved roads and modern sewers. Public services were so poor in 1966 that five children died in a Meacham Park house fire after the community's volunteer fire department's engine wouldn't start.

Long before Meacham Park became part of Kirkwood, the predominantly African-American neighborhood suffered from problems like these and a strained relationship with its larger, more affluent, predominantly white neighbor. Now, this history forms part of the backdrop for community discussions that have taken place since Meacham Park resident Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton killed Kirkwood police and officials at City Hall two years ago.

Back in 1966, Kirkwood Mayor Robert Reim spoke of his deep shock when viewing the fire scene. He wrote that Kirkwood "has been equally guilty with the surrounding cities and St. Louis County in creating a ghetto-like effect in existence in Meacham Park through neglect, discrimination and annexations over the years which have included valuable commercial and industrial areas, but which have avoided the Meacham Park area."

It took two more decades, however, before the move toward annexation took on steam. A 1989 survey of Meacham Park residents conducted before the annexation showed strong support for joining Kirkwood to obtain better police protection and better housing for senior citizens.

The 1989 survey showed lingering distrust, however, based on racial prejudice and the belief that Kirkwood only was interested in Meacham Park for its development potential. Anger smoldered -- and still smolders today -- among those who say Kirkwood "stole" a 100-foot commercial strip of land along South Kirkwood Road in a 1957 annexation.

xxxGraphic by Brent Jones | St. Louis Beacon

The survey showed that most Meacham Park residents favored a small or medium-sized shopping center development. Plans developed before the annexation vote in 1991 stated that the development would not extend east of Shelby Street, a boundary that would have made the scale of the current Kirkwood Commons development impossible.

The site now includes several large stores, including Target, Lowe's and Wal-Mart.

The St. Louis County Boundary Commission, which reviews annexations, emphasized in a July 30, 1991 letter to Kirkwood the importance of "maintaining the integrity of Shelby" as the boundary to "address the concerns we are hearing from members of the Meacham Park Community"

Michael Brown, chief administrative officer for Kirkwood then and now, explained the city's motives in 1990. He said that Meacham Park had become "a convenient location for law breakers to hide," and commercial development of the western part of the city "would benefit both the Meacham Park community and Kirkwood."

The summer before the annexation vote, Brown sought to ease doubts that the city wanted to displace Meacham Park residents. In a letter, Brown wrote, "I am still attempting to...remove any possible doubt the Kirkwood City Council wants Meacham Park to stay a (predominantly) single family neighborhood. The council also believes that any residential relocation, if needed at all, should be made within Meacham Park if that is the homeowners' desire."

About three-fourths of the voters in Kirkwood and Meacham Park approved the annexation, with the margin greater in Meacham Park than Kirkwood.

One of the biggest backers of annexation and redevelopment in Meacham Park was Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, a popular, gregarious demolition contractor who was adept at reaching across color lines. Thornton had been a star athlete at Kirkwood High School and had graduated from Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville, now Truman State University.

Mike Gibbons, a Kirkwood City Council member who went on to serve as president pro tem of the Missouri State Senate, was one of Thornton's many influential friends.

"It's still hard to believe that this happened," Gibbons recalled, referring to the Feb. 7, 2008 assault at City Hall during which Thornton killed five city officials and wounded Mayor Mike Swoboda, who later died. "I was at Thornton's wedding. I was involved in lots of things he was involved in. We'd see each other at meetings. He was a great guy."

Far from being disenfranchised in the redevelopment decisions, Thornton was appointed in 1995 by then-Mayor Marge Schramm as a member of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Development Steering Committee that helped in the planning.

Rosalind Williams, the former Kirkwood director of planning and development who oversaw the project, remembers Thornton taking on Harriet Patton, a redevelopment critic who was complaining about the redevelopment causing a tax increase. "Cookie said, 'Harriet, are you listening to yourself? You are talking about $5 a year, the cost of a Big Mac.'

"Cookie was the only one who could talk to Harriet that way," Williams said.

Patton said at the time that "Meacham Park is plagued by people interested in our land." She pointed out that pre-annexation development maps showed a smaller development than the one about to be built.

Williams counters that the community understood from early on that the development would be larger than the pre-annexation map. Of Patton, who remains a prominent leader in the community, Williams says this: "With Harriet, it was a matter of power. She is a big fish in a little pond and she wants to keep it that way."

The initial developer was Opus, the top-drawer real estate company from Minnesota. In 1994, Opus set up its project headquarters in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton. But after approval of the tax increment financing -- TIF -- for the project, Patton circulated a petition to rescind the decision. One pastor's wife, who worked for Opus, turned against the company when it refused to pay for a vacation for her and a friend, Williams recalled.

When the patriarch of the Opus firm, founder Gerald Rauenhorst,  heard about the racial politics, he ordered the company out of the project. Commerical real estate developer DESCO took over the project. "I don't think that DESCO did as good a job as Opus would have because Opus had deeper pockets," Williams said.

Thornton Becomes Disaffected

One reason Thornton supported the redevelopment was that he thought he was going to get the demolition work. He wanted all of it.

Kirkwood officials acknowledge that they told Thornton that he would get demolition work, but said that he didn't have the capacity to do all of the work and that he wouldn't even bid to get contracts.

"He thought this was owed to him," Williams said. "We said business should go to local contractors. Cookie was told he was going to get work, but he had to put in a bid."

Others confirm Williams' account. Brothers Paul and Wallace Ward, two African-American leaders in Kirkwood, devoted long hours to helping Thornton win demolition work from Opus and then DESCO. But Thornton would just scribble bids on the back of a sheet of paper and eventually sued DESCO and the main demolition contractor, Spirtas, for discrimination, the Wards said.

John Hessel, the city attorney for Kirkwood, remembered Thornton complaining that DESCO had fired him. "He said you have to tell DESCO that they have to hire me back. I said I didn't have to, but he said they have to hire a minority. From this time on, his attitude toward the city completely changed."

Around the same period of time, Thornton had repeated disagreements with Ken Yost, the public works director he later killed. Thornton would park his large vehicles in places in Meacham Park that violated city codes. He wound up amassing tickets in the thousands of dollars.

Thornton was represented by Gibbons, the influential Kirkwood lawyer, who worked out a deal with the city giving Thornton time to come into compliance with code requirements.

The city also tried to compromise on the approximately $20,000 that Thornton owed in fines. Hessel recounted in a recent interview the details of at least six occasions when either the mayor or the City Council or a judge asked him to "make the cases go away." But Thornton wouldn't give up his claim that the city had violated his rights. At one of the meetings to try to work out the case, Thornton and two others walked in with ropes around their necks, implying a lynching.

Meanwhile, court records show, the state of Missouri and other creditors were winning judgments in the tens of thousands of dollars for Thornton's failure to pay taxes or debts. Judges ordered garnishments and instructed the sheriff in St. Louis County to seize his vehicles. Thornton filed for bankruptcy.

Around 2001, Thornton began showing up at City Council meetings with signs accusing the city of a "plantation mentality." He called the  council members "jackasses" and would yell "hee-haw" over and over. Mayor Swoboda began ordering the police to remove him.

Franklin McCallie, who had recently retired as principal of Kirkwood High School, happened upon one of these meetings and was shocked both by his friend Thornton's behavior and by the reaction of Swoboda, who grabbed Thornton's sign. McCallie, no shrinking violet, offered to mediate the dispute and for the next five months spent more than 40 hours going over the details of Thornton's claims.

Thornton was wrong on most of the claims, McCallie found. Unable to reach a resolution, McCallie asked Thornton in May 2003, "What will make this right for you, Cookie?" He said to me: "A public apology in front of the City Council and $25 million.' I told him that would never happen unless he sued and won."

Thornton sued in state court and federal court. He represented himself. In his handwritten complaint, Thornton said that by cutting off his comments during meetings the city had violated, "The Right to Redress Grievances. In addition, plaintiff's Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness should not be denied by these City Officials."

Thornton did not have a legal leg to stand on. In 2005, the Missouri Court of Appeals threw out Thornton's malicious prosecution claim. The court said Thornton's appeal was "largely incomprehensible."

On July 26, 2007, Thornton showed up with his signs to picket in front of the home of Hessel, the city attorney. Hessel remembers because it was his daughter's birthday. "I went out and I said, 'I have put up with enough from you.... You don't come to a person's home on Sunday and picket.'" Thornton stayed on the sidewalk picketing until long after dark.

One of Hessel's daughters told him she was scared. Hessel obtained a court order preventing Thornton from coming within 1,000 feet of Hessel's house or office. Thornton did not come within 1,000 feet of Hessel until Feb. 7. "He believed the order prohibited him from coming within 1,000 feet of me," Hessel said.

Police Chief Plummer thought about having Thornton forcibly committed for evaluation. But he decided against that approach on free speech grounds and because Thornton always changed his demeanor after leaving the City Council chamber. "It seemed like a performance," the chief said. Plummer had long since ordered officers not to ticket Thornton.

On Jan. 28, 2008, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry ruled that Kirkwood could remove Thornton from meetings when he engaged in "virulent, personal attacks." Joe Cole, a Meacham Park leader, had dinner with Thornton after the decision. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he found a man defeated. "Everybody said he lost his brain. No, hate got into him. He couldn't stop the hate."

Cole called Police Chief Plummer to tell him about his conversation with Thornton. He didn't reach the chief.

On Feb. 7, the court of appeals threw out Thornton's appeal of the restraining order Hessel obtained.

TIFs, Mortgages and Eminent Domain

Thornton's fight with City Hall resonates with some current residents of Meacham Park who maintain they, or people they know, were cheated during the redevelopment. A common target of their complains is the city's use of Tax Increment Financing money. But $4 million of TIF money was spent in improving the Meacham Park neighborhood, including its housing. 

The TIF money guaranteed displaced homeowners a $40,000 premium plus the St. Louis County appraised value of the house. Owners of some new homes also obtained second and third mortgages at extremely low interest rates to help them buy a new house.The second mortgage was at 0 pecent, and the third mortgage was at 1 percent. The homebuyer made nominal monthly payments of $25 on the second mortgage and $21.67 on the third.

The second mortgages were a source of misunderstanding in the community. Some residents thought Kirkwood was taking control of their houses; some said they felt as though these mortgages were being held over their heads and that they could lose their home if they said something that angered city officials.

"We could not get our story across," recalled Williams. "Once we could tell people what was going on, they would say that's not bad."

Homeowners outside the relocation area could take advantage of the home improvement program. Twenty-seven homeowners received up to $35,000 of TIF money to repair code problems and improve their houses. In addition they received up to $2,000 for landscaping. Some of those who took advantage of this program, Patton among them, complained in 2005 that the work was shoddy, but by then the TIF money had been spent.

In other improvements, the Housing Authority replaced a run-down complex with the Stonecrest townhouses, a gated community with modest rents. Turner School's designation as a historic landmark brought in state and federal tax credits that resulted in private renovation. And a private developer built the Kings Gate apartments on Big Bend Boulevard. Finally, the city built a new park in Meacham Park.

The city's use of eminent domain remains a rallying cry a decade after it occurred. Recently, Willie J. McCullough sat in a meeting of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association with transcripts of a trial that resulted in him receiving $35,000 for five lots. He believes he should have received many times that sum. A review of the transcripts shows that McCullough wanted $110,000 for a home he bought for $1,700 and spent about $15,000 improving.

Randy North is another outspoken critic of eminent domain. He acknowledges that, after long fights with the city, he didn't suffer financially. But he complains about the "aggravation." "When I would complain, city officials would look at me like I was invisible," he said.

Michael Moore, who ran for mayor in 2008 as a write-in candidate, has said that "this land was taken by Kirkwood for geopolitical reasons and commercial purposes."

Moore is one of a number of people claiming to speak for Meacham Park who makes unsubstantiated claims. Recently, Moore protested the use of public funds for a memorial walkway to honor the city officials killed by Thornton. Moore maintained the expenditure violates the Missouri constitution. Moore also claimed that the City Council acted illegally last month in passing a resolution approving the racial mediation agreement drawn up under Justice Department auspices. But Moore has not provided legal interpretations or precedents that support his positions.

Thornton Family difficulties 

Since the city hall shootings, Maureen Thornton, Cookie's estranged wife, has lost her job as a middle school principal in St. Petersburg, Fla. The St. Petersburg Times reported that the district claimed she had misused her position for financial gain and had been verbally abusive to the faculty. Maureen Thornton also had to file for bankruptcy, the paper reported. She has declined interview requests.

At the home of Cookie Thornton's mother at 351 Attucks in Meacham Park, a picture of Cookie is displayed prominently in the window with two small American flags on each side. It is unclear how much longer it will be the Thornton home, however, because it is in the last stages of foreclosure for failure to pay a $93,000 loan that Cookie took out on the property in 2003 in Maureen's name.

Cookie's brother Gerald showed up last month to represent himself at a foreclosure hearing in St. Louis County. In an interview outside the courtroom, he held out hope that he could convince the judge that his due process rights had been violated earlier in the case when a judge made a ruling in chambers without Gerald present. Based on the comments that a new trial judge made from the bench last month and the status of the case, it would appear that nothing stands in the way of the Thorntons losing the home.

Gerald Thornton criticized the Justice Department's mediation process, which he said was just "to calm the citizens down. Meacham Park, they're not getting all of the information. They are getting the runaround." Some of the information that people are not getting relates to his brother's disputes with City Hall, he said without elaborating.

Gerald Thornton continues to say that his brother was justified in his assault at City Hall. "I have always stood on the fact that he was justified because his attempts to follow the rules and procedures were met with their denials."

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.