A Community Mourns

"People need to know what took place here"

Kirkwood police officers shed tears at the memorial service for Officer Thomas F. Ballman held early Tuesday afternoon at Kirkwood Park. His funeral procession from St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Ballwin passed by the Kirkwood Police Department on its way to the park. Funerals were also held throughout the week for Kirkwood Sgt. William Biggs Jr., Council Members Connie Karr and Michael Lynch and City Engineer and Public Works Director Ken Yost. The final funeral of the week, that of Charles Lee Thornton, the shooter in the Feb. 7 murders at city hall, was held Thursday afternoon. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
February 15, 2008
Two days after the deadly shooting rampage at Kirkwood City Hall, Police Chief Jack Plummer was ushering the news media past the crime scene tape and up the stairs to the council chambers.

He showed where bullets entered the dais and where the holes were now being covered with wood trim. Then he showed the locations where council members fell and he described how they were "executed," not simply murdered.

"People need to know what took place here," said Plummer. "We are tearing out the carpets and the chairs. When it's finished, my hope is that we will open the chambers for people to visit and explain to people what happened here."

Plummer said the quick work to erase the signs of the night of carnage at city hall should not be construed as as an attempt to "paper over" a tragedy. He said the horror of Feb. 7 will never be forgotten. However, he said it's important to show that the city will recover. Its residents will not be stopped by a violent, irrational act.

"Kirkwood is changed. Kirkwood is going to be different," said Plummer. "We've all heard that stuff about how Kirkwood is Mayberry. It's not. It's not Mayberry. We've had more than our share of serious incidents here.

"That doesn't mean we all have to be paranoid about what is going to happen next," added Plummer. "It does mean we have to be cautious and look out for each other. But Kirkwood is just as safe now as it was before this terrible event at city hall took place."

As terrible as that event was when Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton went on his shooting spree in the council chambers, it could have been even worse. Thornton killed four inside city hall and seriously wounded the mayor of Kirkwood, but he could have wreaked more carnage.

Thornton had more deadly rounds available when he was finally taken down from the gunfire of two Kirkwood officers who entered the council chambers.

"Cookie had to be put down. He had more rounds," said Plummer. "He was going to kill more people; there is no doubt about that."

Lives Were Saved

Plummer said there's no doubt in his mind that four people took actions the night of Feb. 7 that saved lives. He said the first person who saved lives was Officer William Biggs, whom Thornton confronted and killed outside of city hall.

"We will never know what transpired between Officer Biggs and Cookie Thornton that made Biggs hit his distress signal and send out an alarm," said Plummer. "Only two people know what happened, and they are gone.

A woman grieves Saturday at the memorial in front of Kirkwood City Hall. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"One thing is for sure, once Officer Biggs was shot, he would have not been able to hit that distress signal," stressed Plummer. "Officer Biggs died instantly when he was shot."

The signal from Biggs' emergency device alerted Kirkwood police that there was trouble close by – and an officer might be down. In responding to that alert, police officers soon found themselves inside city hall where they came upon the mayhem in the council chambers.

"The second person who saved lives that night was John Hessel," said Plummer. "Hessel's action of throwing chairs at Cookie kept him off balance, probably kept him occupied, and kept him from shooting more people."

City Attorney Hessel was chased by Thornton. He kept Thornton off balance enough so that Hessel could make it through a door before the assailant fired on him. Shortly after that, Thornton went down in a hail of bullets from city officers.

"Then there's these two officers who came in to the council chambers, alerted because of the good work of Officer Biggs before he went down," said Plummer. "Biggs saved lives. The two officers who came into the council chambers saved lives. They took Cookie Thornton down and that is what they had to do in that situation."

How Could It Happen?

Plummer said he's heard all the speculation about whether the crimes could have been prevented; about the motivations of Thornton; about who should take the blame for Thornton's actions and possible racial overtones.

Police Thursday night block off Madison at Kirkwood Road along the south side of Kirkwood City Hall. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"I don't have time to engage in sociological analysis. I am going to leave that to someone else," said Plummer. "One thing I've learned in 30 years of police work is that you can't always figure out why people do what they do. There's no easy answer.

"Cookie was always friendly to me. He was friendly to Sgt. Biggs. He is a bit of a mystery," said Plummer. "But I don't have the luxury to sit and figure it all out, and there's a week of funerals to deal with.

"There are a lot of people in this world who are willing to resort to violence," noted Plummer. "We can't change that in most cases. Society tries to find logic for illogical acts. Sometimes that's pretty hard to do."

Plummer said he has heard the statement by Thornton's brother, Gerald, that Cookie felt persecuted by city hall. Gerald Thornton described his brother's action as an "act of war" because he "had people he was in battle with" at Kirkwood City Hall.

"That man is a convicted murderer and I would rather the media had not broadcast that all over the country," said Plummer. "I do know that Cookie's wife and daughter have been up here to the station, and they have expressed their sorrow. I do wish the media would get that out there more.

"Meacham Park should not be painted as a hostile place," added Plummer. "It's a neighborhood of Kirkwood. I was criticized for going there and meeting with folks after the murder of Sgt. McEntee, but I will continue to reach out. My feeling is that 2 percent of the people in Meacham Park may be hostile to us; 98 percent are good people."

Others Aid Kirkwood

Speaking on behalf of the police department and the city, Plummer said he is grateful to the police from other cities, from the county and from the state troopers, who have pitched in to help after the calamity at city hall. Plummer said the police have far too many people to thank for providing aid and comfort.

Hours after the shootings, an impromptu press conference was held with a county police person speaking to the news media. Plummer could be seen in the background, his face ashen and his jaw quivering.

"I was quivering with anger," said Plummer. "I did not make a press statement that night because I was in a rage. I was grateful that someone else was able to take on those duties, because that was the angriest I have ever been in my life.

Dan Kunst of MVG Painting varnishes the dais in the Kirkwood Council Chambers. In the background, Kirkwood Police Officer David Docter talks with Mary and Iggy Yuan. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"I used to speak to the press when I was with the county, and I've learned that you should never make a statement when you are very unhappy or when you are happiest," noted Plummer. "It's not going to come out right."

Plummer said he is aware of media reports that Kirkwood could be classified now as one of the most dangerous cities for police work, given it per capita size and the violent deaths of three officers in fewer than four years. Sgt. William McEntee was murdered in Meacham Park by resident Kevin Johnson in July of 2005.

"Statistics can say anything," said Plummer. "And I know my wife loves me. And my mother loves me. And they both think I am the handsomest man in the world. And it's not true, and I know it. That's how I feel about any of the statistics that might be unfavorable for our city."

Plummer said that after the experience of losing Sgt. McEntee, he at least takes comfort in how fallen police officers' families are cared for, and looked after, when the worst happens.

"The sad irony in all this is that these families will probably never have any financial problems again," said Plummer. "But the saddest part of all this is that we can never give them what they really need – a father, a son.

"They are gone now," said Plummer. "We can't give the families back what's most important to them – what has been most treasured."

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