10 Years Later: Survivors Look Back at Kirkwood City Hall Shooting

Megan Lynch
February 07, 2018 - 8:16 am
Closeup of people holding candle vigil in dark seeking hope

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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - This week on KMOX, you've heard about the trauma and loss caused by gun violence in the St. Louis area.

Possibly one of the most shocking incidents in our region happened 10 years ago today, when a man named "Cookie" Thornton stormed into Kirkwood City Hall.

"He initially had one gun, he had a large caliber revolver with him. After he shot Sgt. Biggs, he did take his gun."

A St. Louis County police spokesperson says Sgt. Bill Biggs was the first victim shot in a parking lot near police headquarters.

Investigators don't think Biggs had time to call for help. Staff inside the station heard the shots ring out, but Thorton had already gotten inside city hall and gunned down officer Tom Ballman, councilwoman Connie Karr, councilman Mike Lynch and public works director Kenneth Yost.

"A couple of the other Kirkwood officers came in at that time and engaged with him in gunfire, and they did shoot and kill him," the spokeswoman says. 

Reporter Megan Lynch was just one of our colleagues called to the scene that night. A decade later, she takes us inside that room, through the words of one survivor.

"Everything went into super slow motion for me when it was taking place, and I remember every second of it, including things that ran through my mind," says Kirkwood City Attorney John Hessel. "Was I going to survive, I didn't think I was going to survive. I was going to miss my daughter's high school graduation, I was going to miss my other daughter's wedding, I was going to miss my son having [children], all of those things went through my mind in split seconds," he says. 

As the incomprehensible happened - witnessing colleagues and friends cut down by a gunman's bullets - Hessel reacted instinctively, hurling a chair at Thorton. Hessel describes his mental process in the desperate scramble to escape.

"The council chambers [are] on the second floor of city hall, so I'm running towards the steps to go out and I think, 'He's going to shoot me in the back,' so I'm going to jump over the railing and jump down to the first floor, and I thought to myself of that line from Butch Cassidy in the Sundance Kid, 'Well you fool, the fall alone will kill you,' and I literally thought that as I'm running, and I'm sort of giggling to myself. Just amazing the kinds of things that go through your mind," he says. 

Hessel says the psychological trauma lasts for months, even years. 

"You have dreams, over and over, particularly within the first year. You relive that several times a week, at least for me. And it's funny, every time I did something different than what I did that night, I got killed," he says.

For current Kirkwood Mayor Tim Griffin -- who was inside the Council Chamber that night in his role as Deputy Mayor -- it's hard to believe a full decade has gone by.

"There's just so much vividness about the event, and things that happened. It does not seem like 10 years ago," he says. 

Griffin believes he came within seconds of becoming yet another shooting victim that night.

"He and I made some eye contact, and I said, 'Cookie, I've known you a long time,' and all of a sudden he ran," he says. 

Griffin later learned that as Thornton was drawing a bead on him, he became distracted by City Attorney John Hessel's successful escape attempt.

The survivors meet each February 7 to support each other and talk. Talk about how something like this should never have happened, and also speaking out in the hope it never will again.