The Kirkwood shooter and a challenge to investigative journalists

February 9, 2008 | By | 5 Replies More

It’s easy to call Cookie Thorton a madman. No one in his or her right mind would walk into a civilized city council meeting and open fire – we can all agree on that. But by writing this week’s shooting in Kirkwood off as the aberrant act of a crazed mind, we are left coming up empty when we ask why. Platitudes will abound, only God can know why these innocent people were taken from us, they will say. My sympathies lie with the families and friends of all the victims, including Mr. Thorton. He snapped, that much is obvious. My challenge to investigative journalists is to examine this story deeply – from all sides – until the underlying truths can be pried free and examined openly. Hopefully, we can all learn from the complex tensions that plague the Kirkwoods of our world.

Kirkwood is a robust community, straddling the older inner suburban ring and the vast newer suburban sprawl fanning out from St. Louis. It is one of the last bastions of great older housing stock, vast Victorians and cozy brick cottages all on substantial lots and connected by sidewalks and parks and schools. New construction has been squeezed in, too, with condos popping up as well as the random new home over a razed lot. Its town center thrives with shops and salons, restaurants and coffee houses. A popular community college, a hospital and a busy recreation center, complete with a theater, ice rink and a swimming park full of fountains and activities, add to Kirkwood’s stability and appeal. The southern edge has become a retail mecca, with not only a Sam’s Club and a Wal-Mart, but also a Target right next door. Strip malls connect them and face another row across the road.

I don’t live in Kirkwood, but I go there to shop and eat. I have a good friend who moved there from the city; oh, and my shrink’s office is housed in one of the many medical buildings scattered around the hospital, so I do visit now and again, let’s say. My friend loves living in Kirkwood, and I know many others who feel the same. A co-worker grew up there, and happened to be back there the night of the shooting, enjoying Ben and Jerry’s with her family right across the street from City Hall. She was visibly shaken as she recounted the story to us the next day – not so much by the hour or so they’d been locked down inside with their treats, but more by the identity of the shooter. She knew Cookie, she said. When my friend was in school, he’d married her P.E. teacher, and would stop by now and then to visit. He’d play games with them, getting them active and laughing. He was just wonderful, she said. We all loved him. I’ve heard that more than once these last few days. He was delightful, so kind. A great guy. Wow. What happened? Did he succumb to some lurking mental illness, some defect that can’t possibly affect any of us “normal” citizens? Or was it something else?

Cookie Thorton lived in Meacham Park, the one part of Kirkwood that most citizens don’t want to mention. Meacham Park is run down. It doesn’t fit the Kirkwood image. The houses are tiny, the yards not typically landscaped and sometimes hardly mowed. Many are rentals, and by and large, the residents of Meacham Park are poor. And as is too often the case, they are also mostly black.

I visited one of these residents regularly a few years back. She was the foster mom of a baby I represented as a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate), or Voices for Children as they are now called in St. Louis. This woman was lovely, big and loud and full of life. She loved that baby with all her heart, and I clearly remember wishing that all foster kids could have the privilege of being cuddled by someone like her as they waited for their lives to be sorted out by the grown-ups supposedly in charge.

Her house was small, but it was clean and tidy. She managed to get by on a minimal income; she’d moved there so that her own kids could go to the Kirkwood schools for a good education. They got by with a lot fewer things but as much love and laughter as you’d find in any of the sprawling Victorians rising only a few blocks away. Sadly, they also got by on a lot less respect than is given to those for whom success is measured by the weight of their possessions.

Meacham Park made headlines in 2005 when Kevin Johnson shot and killed a police officer in his patrol car. Johnson was just recently sentenced to the death penalty. He did kill a cop but I’m not sure how the fact that his younger brother had just died that same day didn’t somehow ameliorate the sentence. Especially since his brother had collapsed at home, and according to some witnesses, the police were slow to respond. Johnson believed they didn’t do enough to help. Maybe they thought he’d collapsed because of an overdose, or because he’d been fighting. Maybe they responded just fine and were only perceived to have not cared. Regardless, Johnson felt like they didn’t give what was a legitimate medical emergency (the brother died of a heart ailment) its due. He was distraught and in his grief needed to blame someone. He made a horrible, cold decision to “take out the first cop he saw.” He didn’t think, he acted irrationally. One of the officers provided a target for that grief, and now Johnson is scheduled to join his brother in death. All of it, senseless. Johnson had been in trouble with the law before, and I am not, in any way, defending his actions any more than those of Cookie Thorton. He caused great grief to an entire community, and he should pay dearly for his actions, absolutely. But until we look hard at the underlying problems here – the tension between minority residents in a low-income neighborhood and the powers-that-be in their town – I fear more of these episodes on the horizon.

Meacham Park residents are certainly not all steeped in a mentality of violence, nor is the violence in our fair municipality concentrated there. But I’d be a fool if I said that it doesn’t exist, and we’d all be fools to deny that the ready access to firearms in this country makes acting upon emotional outbursts potentially more violent and permanent. I believe, as a culture, we’ve taken our right to bear arms (which I support in its basic form) to an absurd extreme, but that remains another debate for another time.

Cookie Thorton apparently had owned an asphalt business. According to his brother, he’d been promised a slice of the redevelopment work in the area a few years back, presumably when the strip malls and box stores went in. A goodly amount of work for an asphalt guy, what with the flat roofing and the expansive parking lots to cover. He didn’t get it, though, and without the work he believed the city fathers had promised him, how could he afford to find himself a space for his business? So he parked his trucks at his home, providing an open target for an annoyed city government. My guess is that he’d complained about not getting the work, maybe even loudly. We do know that he was a vocal complainer, doing so loudly and bitterly and eventually bizarrely once the spat began in earnest. He felt slighted, he complained, and my guess is that the city decided to quiet him by citing him for parking commercial vehicles in a residential area. Uh-oh, you can’t do that! City ordinances prohibit it, and he was breaking the law. Cut and dried, that’s what that is.

Those city ordinances are designed to protect the appearances of neighborhoods, we all know that. Who wants a big ol’ asphalt truck hunkered down in their block? I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. But what was Cookie to do? Sell his trucks and lose his business? And if he’s paying fine after fine to the city that promised him work and didn’t deliver, how is he supposed to save up for a business lot onto which he could move the trucks? No one, it seems, could find a compromise.

Again, easy to say who’s right and who’s wrong here. Cookie broke the law, the city tried to enforce it, he fought them and lost, he should just shut up and deal with it. Right? He certainly shouldn’t have taken the action he did on Wednesday night. But what?

Have you ever tried to deal with a local bureaucracy? Merely by mentioning this to people, I’ll wager you’d hear story after frustrated story. I know I did. One woman told me about her husband’s business being tortured by a city council upset with his business partner. Her husband had poured piles of money into rehabbing old property and revitalizing another inner suburb here by opening a popular and thriving restaurant, but his partner managed to aggravate the council. My friend and her husband felt completely battered, cited and fined and slowed down by one minute detail after another. Code violations were being selectively enforced, as other developers got away with sidestepping them one after the other. And once the offending business partner was bought out and sent packing, the council suddenly had no more time to mess with them and, poof, it all went away.

Another friend told me about the hoops he was required to jump through when trying to sell a small house in a faltering suburb, an area in which property values were falling and people were consistently moving away. His house failed inspection for the most inane reasons, while the homes of elderly neighbors who were being moved to nursing homes were consistently passed in the exact same condition as his. The last straw for him was grass – the house would have passed save for a bit of grass in the driveway. He went to city hall and engaged in a shouting match with an inspector, his frustration blazing. He said he totally understood the feeling of frustration Cookie Thorton must have felt. He felt it that day. The security guard came in ready to haul him away, but realized he was only venting, and let him have his say. My friend is a fairly small man, Caucasian and clean-cut. I wonder, had he been shaped or colored otherwise, would it have played out the same way? I’m not sayin’. Just wondering . . .

Another friend impeccably rehabbed a house in the city, across the street from mine. He had French doors installed on the front of the second story, leading out to a small deck over the front porch. Our volunteer “block captain” turned him in to the city for code violations, for not maintaining the historical integrity of the structure. The house had been boarded up for years, mind you, a real eyesore on an otherwise pleasant block. And nearly every other rehabbed house up and down the street had been changed in some way that violated the historic building code – wrong windows, glass blocks, you name it. But she turned him in because the old door hadn’t been French. And when she was questioned about it, she stated that it wouldn’t be fair to turn the other people in, because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines or make the changes. But this guy, well, he’s in the media so he can afford it. She said this with a straight face, as if anyone in her right mind could see her logic and would agree that equal enforcement of the rules made very little sense.

So much for cut and dried. So much for winning if you play by the rules, losing if you don’t. You win if you don’t piss them off, that’s all. If you do, well, God help you.

Personally, I think Cookie Thorton was driven to his insane end not by mental illness but by cultural illness. Not by overt racism but by the insidious intolerance of those who struggle by those who do not, resting precariously on a base of generational racism on both sides. Mayor Swoboda of Kirkwood, who as of this writing is fighting for his life in a local hospital, certainly did not deserve to get shot – nor did anyone else that night. Disputes should be able to be solved in other ways, civilly, not by “going to war,” as Cookie’s brother said he did. The mayor has a reputation in some circles, though, spoken quietly several times over the past couple of days, for being intolerant of those who didn’t agree or go along with him.

Cookie most assuredly didn’t go along. He wanted to be treated fairly and he believed that he was not. He pushed against the system and the system pushed back, hard. He lost first his dignity, then his free-speech lawsuit, and finally, apparently, his mind. And now none of it can be returned to him, nor can the lives of his victims be returned to their loved ones. He will be vilified, without a doubt. But I hope that somehow, beyond that blame, we might also finally hear his side, and learn some hard lessons from this tragic, senseless episode.

Was he really promised work that was not delivered? If so, why? If not, what happened that made him believe he had been?

Who did get the work he thought he was getting? Were those contractors connected to anyone in City Hall in any way? How many contractors on those jobs were minority-owned and/or Kirkwood-based businesses?

What was the basis of other disputes he had with the city – did any of them have any merit?

Were the parking violations for which he was cited the only ones being enforced? Are code violations typically enforced equally between Meacham Park and the rest of Kirkwood?

These are some of the questions I hope the media will strive to answer – not to lay blame for these deaths anywhere but at the feet of Cookie Thorton – he and he alone took those lives. Rather to determine if any of his frustration was justified, and if so, to begin a real and public discussion on changes that might mitigate such feelings in the future.

I believe this kind of discussion would be much more productive, if also more painful, than whether or not metal detectors should be installed in the city office buildings. If our laws are not enforced consistently and fairly, the laws shouldn’t exist in the first place. If enforcement is used not judicially, but instead to silence, drive out or otherwise harass citizens on the fringes of our communities, we step away from democracy into a chaos that will ultimately swallow us all.

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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, Communication, Current Events, law and order

About the Author ()

I am a writer and communication professional in St. Louis, Missouri, a crafter of jewelry, a disorganized optimist and most importantly, the adoptive mom of two China-born daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Mindy: Thank you for this post. It goes so much deeper than anything I'd seen or heard by the local press, at least until the Post Dispatch published this column by Sylvester Brown this morning.

    The murders were reprehensible. But you are right, that the situation is much more complex than simply focusing on the pulling of a trigger. This shocking multiple murder could be a learning experience, if we back up far enough to look at this situation from a perspective other than the official "government is always right" perspective.

    The relatives of Thornton are making pointed accusations. If Cookie Thornton was playing by the rules and yet he was lied to and harassed by the Kirkwood government, it could explain why he was driven to such desperation.

    A comprehensive investigation needs to be even handed, of course. What if Cookie Thornton was treated no differently than any other similarly situated contractors? What if his bid was higher than the winners or his work not a good? If true, we should treat him just like we would treat any other person who failed to place the winning bid on a project, and reacted by committing murder.

    Then again, this comprehensive approach seems to suggest that whether a murder is justified hinges on whether the shooter was the victim of corruption or government harassment. That's apparently the pragmatic way many of the citizens of Meacham Park see it.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Mindy: Your post powerfully reminded me that there is often a valuable story that remains untold. Your call for responsible investigative journalism is right on. I thought about what would happen if we expanded your suggestions to covering Iraq.

    Instead of "insurgents" and "terrorists" (and their families) getting bombed in masse, is it possible that the many of thousands of human beings who resist the efforts of the U.S. to permanently occupy Iraq (and to force the cheap sale of Iraqi oil to the U.S.) have legitimate gripes? Is it possible that U.S. troops and the U.S. sponsored Iraqi security forces have brutalized many of the people who are against the continued U.S. occupation? Is it possible that, were the full story to come out, that U.S. citizens wouldn't be willing to continue funding this gristly occupation?

    The unwillingness of the U.S. news media to take the time and effort to carefully investigate and tell the thousands of stories of the "insurgents" means that citizens of the U.S. will continue to see Iraq simplistically, in terms of black and white. What is happening in Iraq will remain a "war" between the "greatest country in the world," where we are battling the "bad guys."

    I see that the St. Louis news media is now at least asking the important questions you raised regarding the case of Cookie Thornton. I see little hope that the national news media will tell similarly detailed stories about the people resisting the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

    I'm not suggesting that the motives and the actions of the "insurgents" are necessarily admirable. It's probably a mixed bag. But don't U.S. news consumers deserve enough trust from the Bush Administration and the corporate dominated news media to hear all sides of the issue?

    By the way, if you want to see how incredibly disingenuous the Bush administration is, check out Bush's recent characterization of the foreign policy proposed by Barack Obama: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/02/10/bush-oba

  3. Penny says:

    Mindy: Thank you for your extremely thought-provoking work. As a former resident of Kirkwood, the shootings last week have left me devastated and searching for answers. My heart has always been in Kirkwood and during these troubled days even more so.

    I think, if there is to be any "good" resulting from this situation, it lies in the heart of your post. This is a complicated issue that merits an investigation into not only what factors contributed to Cookie's actions (perhaps a symbol of a bigger issue as you suggest), and what we can do as a human community to keep this kind of tragedy from happening again. Thank you again…your post has given me great comfort and fed my heart and my head.

  4. Phillip says:

    This is the story I have been looking for! Sadly, such thought provoking and "beneath the surface," writing isn't present, or even likely to be found on the pages of the Post Dispatch, or even locally in the Webster-Kirkwood Times!

    As a resident of Kirkwood, and someone who has been touched by the good that Cookie offered the community, I find it refreshing to see real journalism, without the sensational rhetoric that selectively offers statements, only to present them as universal opinions.

    Though I could not bring myself to enter the sanctuary this afternoon, where Cookie was recieving his last goodbyes, I couldn't help but notice the real acceptance of this man by the larger community. One couldn't drive down Clay, or Harrison without being caught by the gastly amount of residents, black and white, entering the sanctuary to visit Cookie.

    I'm still too emotional to clarify much more about the topic, although I will make sure to send this to every news outlet in the region, with a note about how someone captured the real story of this tragedy, and the article didn't even need flashy blue graphics.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  5. Nancy Seats says:

    Because the remaining elected officials of the City of Kirkwood continue to insist that the election will be held on April 8 as schduled they are causing even more divisiveness. There is only one candidate left on the ballot for Mayor due to the death of Connie Karr. The people deserve an opportunity to have a choice for Mayor. The one candidate on the ballot will serve a four year term, and thousands of citizens of Kirkwood don't feel that he represents them.

    This candidate had never visited Meacham Park until the Sunday (to attend church) after the last City Council meeting held on a cold, rainy night, and attended by at least 250 citizens many of whom spoke with passion about delaying the election. A former Mayor called us all the "vocal minority". Hmm! Where have we heard those words used before?

    Unless and until, the city officials begin listening to and representing ALL citizens of Kirkwood there will be disenfranchisement and I pray that it doesn't lead to more violence.

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