Saturday, February 09, 2008


Once ‘jovial’ Thornton grew increasingly confrontational in years leading up to shootings

Charles Lee Thornton had a long and tortured legal history with several of the people he confronted or killed Thursday night at City Hall in Kirkwood, Mo.

A review of federal and state court records Friday showed an escalating series of legal and personal confrontations between Thornton and public officials in Kirkwood.

But the fatal conflict baffled at least one lawyer who knew Thornton and once represented him during a civil lawsuit against the city for malicious prosecution. Irwin Roitman, a St. Louis lawyer, described Thornton as “intelligent” and “jovial.” Roitman said he never had the impression that Thornton was, in any way, violent.

“I remember being in the courtroom one day with Mr. Thornton, the building commissioner and some other officials, and there wasn’t the slightest indication he was hostile or aggressive,” Roitman said. “He was upbeat.”

Some city officials shared that sentiment. Testifying in state court last year, a city employee recalled that until the year 2000, Thornton was “always fun to run into” and “always had a funny word or a good greeting.”

But that began to change in 2001, when Kirkwood prosecuted Thornton, who owned a small construction firm, for dozens of municipal code violations, including illegal dumping and improper storage of building materials. He eventually was fined more than $18,000, which he never paid.

And twice during that period, Thornton was convicted in municipal court of assault and battery on Ken Yost, Kirkwood’s public works director, whom Thornton fatally shot Thursday. The municipal judge fined Thornton $2,000 for those assaults.

Incensed at being convicted of the code violations — the court fined a co-defendant only $1,296 — Thornton opened a legal and personal battle with the city.

He filed a lawsuit making civil rights and malicious prosecution claims against the city. A Missouri appeals court threw out the lawsuit in 2005, describing his pleadings as “incomprehensible.” Roitman had left the case two years before when Thornton began ignoring his legal advice and filing his own motions with the court.

Thornton also had begun attending City Council meetings regularly and occasionally addressing the council during public comment sessions.

Court records filed by the city said that while his behavior was sometimes disruptive, Thornton never was banned from the meetings.

The city’s patience ran out in the spring and early summer of 2006. Twice during council meetings, Thornton rose to discuss his complaints with the city. In later testimony, Thornton said he was mad “because of the city’s constant harassment, bogus tickets, document fraud and perjury.”

Thornton framed his complaints in harsh, racial terms, saying the city had a “plantation mentality” and alleging that the rules for addressing the council favored white people.

At one meeting, Councilwoman Connie Karr, whom Thornton later would kill, complained to Mayor Mike Swoboda that Thornton’s bluster offended her.

And at both meetings, Swoboda, whom Thornton later would wound, ordered Kirkwood Police Officer Thomas Ballman to remove him. In both instances, Thornton went limp, and officers dragged him from the meeting in handcuffs.

A municipal judge subsequently sentenced Thornton to four days in jail and fined him $799 for two disturbing-the-peace convictions.

Ballman also died in the shooting Thursday.

In January 2007, Thornton sued the city in federal court, alleging it had abridged his First Amendment right to address the council. source

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