City Council member Timothy Griffin sat between Mayor Mike Swoboda and Michael H.T. Lynch. Both men were shot.
“There is not a right or wrong way to react,” Griffin, the current Kirkwood mayor, said. “There were people hunkered down under the dais who were shot, people who were running out who were shot. You just think, ‘Is this really going on?’”
Wednesday, Feb. 7 marks 10 years since Charles “Cookie” Thornton stormed the Kirkwood City Council Chambers, leaving six people dead and one wounded.
The casualties from that night included police officer Thomas Ballman, police Sgt. William Biggs Jr., City Council members Connie Karr and Lynch and public works director Ken Yost. Swoboda died seven months later following complications from his gunshot wounds. Additionally, a reporter for the Suburban Journals, Todd Smith was shot and wounded in the hand during the City Council shooting.
Kirkwood police fatally shot Thornton, ending his rampage.
Griffin is the current Kirkwood mayor. Griffin said one of the things that kept him moving forward was bringing the community together and continuing the work he set out to do in the City Council. He said it was what his fallen colleagues would have wanted him to do.
Kirkwood United Methodist Church’s lead pastor Rev. David Bennett said the day after was crucial in keeping the community together and initiating discussion about the events.
“By noon the next day, we opened up the church and had a full house of people who needed to begin to ask questions and what does this mean for us now as a community,” Bennett said. “One of the phrases that seemed to resonate was ‘we as a community cannot let this define who we are.’”
Bennett’s church hosted the funeral for Thornton and his family. He said the community and members of his church questioned this decision.
He responded by saying the funeral would start to bring healing to Kirkwood, initiate a conversation about relations in the area and help the city remember that “this will not define who we are.”
“Our church holds about 500 folks, but it was reported that 700 people came to this event,” Bennett said. “For me, this says that there was a need for this and for the community to come together.”
10 years later, Griffin said it is important to remember the events of that day, but also how it changed the community and pushed it in a positive direction rather than set them back.
“That incident changed the spirit of the city,” Griffin said. “People took on a different tone, a more amicable and collegial tone. That transferred in all parts of the city within city government and the people in general. Unfortunately, that situation occurred. But if anything good came out of it, I think the spirit of the city just expanded greatly.”
Griffin knew he wanted to commemorate the February 2008 events. He said people will remember the events of that day through newspaper or TV, but by gathering, people are reminded of those who lost their lives and the progress they have made as a community.
“I wanted to let the families of the people who were killed know that we haven’t forgotten them,” Griffin said. “We remember them. They are still important to us. It is a remembrance of what happened and to honor and respect those who were killed. But it is also a remembrance of the community and how we changed and how we continue to change.”
Bennett said a memorial was not just about remembering the events of February 2008, but to reflect on how those events impacted the community as a whole.
“We thought it would be an appropriate thing to recognize the tragedy and commemorate our loss, but also to ask some questions about how far we have come, where we have come and where we need to go in terms of race relations in the community.”
Memorials to commemorate the events of Feb. 7, 2008 are scheduled to take place throughout the city on the exact day of the 10th anniversary, Wednesday Feb. 7. The first is a remembrance ceremony on the eastside steps of Kirkwood City Hall.
Kirkwood Public Informations Officer and Webster alumna Beth von Behren said the program will be around 30 minutes long and involve lighting a candle for each of the victims, as well as remarks from Mayor Griffin, former police Chief Jack Plummer and council member Paul Ward. The memorial also involves music, a Color Guard, lighting hand-held candles by those in attendance and bagpipers leading a procession to the Memorial Walkway.
The second memorial will be a prayer service and discussion at the Kirkwood United Methodist Church beginning at 7:30 p.m. The service will feature music from the Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis and remarks from other congregations in the Kirkwood community.
Bennett said the service will provide people in the community with an opportunity to share their own experiences from the last 10 years. It will be broken into three parts, each ending in prayer. The first will discuss what happened 10 years ago and what life was like then, the second discusses the importance of communication and listening and last will look at the future and how can we further improve ourselves.
“It is not only people bringing ideas and reflections from the past, but it is really to engage the community in thinking about where we are now and where do we want to go from here,” Bennett said.