KSDK-TV filed a request to Kirkwood City Hall for, and got, every single citation that Kirkwood ever filed on Cookie Thornton or on his business, CookCo Construction. They then read and studied every single on of those citations, and armed with what they learned, went and asked very pointed questions of Kirkwood city attorney (and Thornton survivor) John Hessel. Based on eyewitness accounts received from Meacham Park, KSDK's reporters went after all of this to try one last time to answer the most important question of the whole tragedy. Were Cookie Thorton, his family, and his neighbors in Meacham Park right to believe that Cookie Thornton was singled out for abusive harassment by the Kirkwood city government?
Their single most interesting finding astounded almost everybody. Only a couple of people actually knew this, I know, but it's so important it blows my mind that nobody brought it up in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. From the story:
"In the past 12 years the City of Kirkwood issued 79 citations to Thornton. ... In 1996, the city issued four citations. In 1997 it was six citations. In 1998 Thornton received only one citation and in 1999 he received two. In that four year period, Thornton paid about 1000 dollars in fines. But in the years 2000 and 2001, the city issued 59 citations to Thornton. ... In May, 2001, a St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge found Thornton guilty of every violation filed. She fined him more than 11,000 dollars. They were fines Thornton never paid. The following month, the tickets increased. On June 22, 2001 Ken Yost, the Director of Public Works, one of five people Thornton killed, personally wrote four tickets. ... Four days later, Thornton received eight more tickets. ... [Then] According to Hessel a decision was made to halt all tickets. ... Public records show, in 2003, 2004, and 2005, Kirkwood did not issue one ticket to Thornton. Since 2002, he received a total of six citations." (Emphasis added by me.)In an on-air interview, Hessel gave ambiguous and conflicting answers about why the harassment started, whether it was initiated by the city on their own first, or if the city was only responding to complaints from one or more of Thornton's neighbors. But unless they can show even one white contractor in Kirkwood who was treated the same way when he didn't immediately pack up his business and leave town, they still have something important left to explain, because the evidence is clear and unambiguous: for a span of roughly one year, the city of Kirkwood, and specifically one of Thornton's targets that night Public Works Director Ken Yost, absolutely was trying to put him out of business in an over-the-top campaign of harassment.
If it were anybody else, I'd be willing to believe it was just a personality conflict. These things happen. Some local official shows up on a guy's property, makes an impolite demand, makes threats, the guy who's being threatened loses all ability to think rationally (which is what happens when you threaten people), both people end up shouting at each other, and they declare informal war. It happens. What I'm having a hard time imagining, though, is that this is what happened with Cookie Thornton, because of one thing that literally everybody who knew him has said: before this all started, Thornton was the nicest, most sweet-tempered, most generous, kindest guy in all of Meacham Park. Someone who got along with everybody, black or white, young or old, rich or poor. So if that initial attempt to get Thornton to clean up his business enough to get the neighbors to shut up, and to get the necessary permits and variances, resulted in the kind of all-out war that those citations document, that initial meeting has to have been disastrous. And this being Kirkwood, and this being Meacham Park, I still think the most obvious explanation why, all the way back in 2000 this one Meacham Park businessman got (apparently) singled out so hard is that he was a black man with a semi-successful business, and some racist white official felt that he didn't need to negotiate with, discuss anything with, or defend anything to a black man, that when a white government official speaks, it is up to the black man to shut up, grovel, and obey. If there's another reason instead, the burden of proof is on Kirkwood to show it.
But the last and most fascinating part of this is this, as I emphasized above from Zigman's story: Kirkwood had already backed down. At least, most of the way. We know that they were still refusing to negotiate the permits and variances Thornton technically needed, because plenty of witnesses have told reporters about Thornton's increasingly desperate attempts over the years to get onto the necessary City Council or City Zoning Commission meeting agendas. And because Thornton's credit records are protected by privacy laws, we may never know if the City of Kirkwood was still trying to collect on the tens of thousands of dollars of fines from back then, or if six years later those unpaid fines were still wrecking his credit rating. Maybe that's something the city never thought of, never realized how badly that would hurt a small businessman when they decided to de-escalate. As far as Hessel and the city were concerned, when they stopped writing those tickets altogether in the summer of 2001, this should have been all over, and Thornton shouldn't have had anything left to complain about.
Is that why Thornton pinned all of his hopes on his lawsuits against Kirkwood and crashed so hard when the last lawsuit was dismissed, because he saw it as the only way to repair his credit when the city was refusing to discuss it with him? Or is this really just pent-up rage that simmered all these years in the mind of a man who was convinced that he did everything that white America has ever asked anybody to do, festering anger six and a half years later over an insult he was given for being a semi-successful black man? We'll probably never know. I guess that all we can know is that whatever the heck was going on in 2000 and 2001, why ever a handful of Kirkwood's elected officials took on this one popular Meacham Park former star athlete and semi-successful small businessman, whoever actually started it, they and he paid for it with their lives. Whether or not Kirkwood stays at war with Meacham Park, Cookie Thornton's private war is finally over.
(Previously: "Meacham Park Terrorist's Suicide Attack on Kirkwood City Occupation Government," 2/8/08. "Kirkwood and Meacham Park from 1853 to 1990," 2/10/08. "Ethnic Cleansing Does Not Condone Terrorism: Kirkwood, Meacham Park, and Cookie Thornton," 2/11/08.)