A Lawyer’s Lifesaving Decision: ‘I’m Not Going to Sit Here and Let Him Execute Me’

Posted Feb 12, 2008, 11:22 am CST
By Debra Cassens Weiss

Kirkwood, Mo., City Attorney John Hessel has vivid memories of a gunman’s city-council shooting rampage that claimed the lives of five people last Thursday.

“I remembered every second of this, and everything was in
slow-motion,” he told “If you asked me how long it
lasted, I would have said 15 minutes. I now know from police officers
who listened to an audiotape it took one minute and 13 seconds until he
was shot.”

The gunman was Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, who had filed numerous
lawsuits against the city, all stemming from citations he had received
in connection with his construction and demolition business. Thornton
killed two police officers and three Kirkwood officials,
including public works director Kenneth Dale Yost. As Hessel ran from
the council chambers, he passed police officers coming up the stairs
who shot and killed Thornton, putting an end to the carnage.

Hessel, a lawyer with Lewis, Rice & Fingersh,
managed to save himself, first by diving under the council dais and
then by throwing chairs at Thornton in a split-second decision to stand
up and fight. But he believes divine intervention was also at work when
Thornton tripped over the body of Yost, giving him time to flee the
council chambers.

Hessel was reading information into the city council record when he
first heard the voice of Thornton, who frequently showed up at city
council meetings to voice his angry disagreements with city officials.
Thornton was carrying two guns; one of them had been taken from a
police officer outside, who was his first victim. “The instant I looked
up I saw him drop this placard. I saw two guns in his hand and he
immediately shot [police officer] Tom Ballman, in an instant. I then
literally ducked underneath the dais.”

The next victim was Yost, and then Mayor Mike Swoboda, who was recently reported to be in critical condition.
“Mayor Swoboda got up, he did not dive under the dais like I did,”
Hessel says. “I heard additional gunshots and I saw him fall to the
ground, and I saw blood coming out of his head.”

More shots were fired, and two more city council members were
killed. “I believe he was simply walking down the line of the dais and
going to shoot every one of us,” Hessel says. “So I got up and thought:
I’m not going to sit here and let him execute me.”

“I was trying to go out the front door. And I saw Cookie Thornton
coming from my right. He pointed both guns right at me. … I looked him
dead square in the eye and I said, ‘Cookie, don’t do this,’ and there
was no expression on his face. I do not know why he didn’t fire, but he
didn’t, and I picked up a chair and I threw it at him.”

Even though he was four or five feet away, the chair hit Thornton.
“I would say my father who died 10 years ago to the day helped me,”
Hessel says, “because the chair that I threw hit his arms, obviously
with the guns pointed at me, and knocked his arms over to the right.”
Hessel moved closer, and threw a second chair, then a third. Then he

He glanced behind him and saw that Thornton had tripped over Yost’s
body. “As I told Ken Yost’s family yesterday,” Hessel says, “I believe
Ken Yost’s spirit tripped him.”

“I know it’s hard to believe, but all of these thoughts went through
my head in splits of seconds,” Hessel says. He has a long history with
Thornton, who filed so many lawsuits against the city that Hessel lost
count. Thornton was angry because the city had fined him more than
$20,000 for more than 100,000 violations stemming from his operation of
a construction and demolition business. He worked without a permit and
dumped debris in vacant lots, Hessel says. “He thought he was above the

Many of Thornton’s suits were filed in the first instance with the
Missouri Supreme Court or various appeals courts. He never found a
lawyer who would represent him. Hessel defended the city in all of the
suits, making Thornton so angry that he had picketed Hessel’s home.

The most recent legal development was a Jan. 28 opinion
(PDF) by a federal judge dismissing Thornton’s lawsuit against the city
claiming his free speech rights were violated because he was barred
from speaking out at meetings. U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry
wrote that Thornton had appeared at meetings and called the mayor a
jackass, complained of a "plantation mentality," and refused to stop
talking when asked. She wrote that Thornton "does not have a First
Amendment right to engage in irrelevant debate and to voice repetitive,
personal, virulent attacks against Kirkwood and its city officials.”

In a separate lawsuit, the Missouri Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit
(reg. req.) in 2005 that Thornton had filed alleging malicious
prosecution and civil rights violations. The court said Thornton’s
appeal did not comply with procedural rules.

Hessel says several people tried to reach out to Thornton. Members
of Thornton’s church and the Kirkwood schools superintendent tried to
reason with him, to no avail. The city was willing to negotiate. It
offered to drop the fines if Thornton would agree to stop showing up at
meetings with harassing comments. “But nope, that wasn’t enough,” he
says. ‘It is hard for me to fathom what we could have done.”

Now Hessel is attending funerals of the victims and trying to
comfort grieving families. His family and friends have rallied to help
him deal with the aftermath. “My father taught me to cherish life, that
it’s precious, to appreciate what you have,” he says. “Now I have a
greater appreciation.”

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