Launch Slideshow

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Security Risk

Security Risk

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    In 2007— after years of odd behavior during city council meetings—Charles “Cookie” Thornton filed free-speech lawsuits in both county and federal courts against the city of Kirkwood, Mo., for barring him from speaking during council meetings. Photo: Michael Fielding

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    Photo: Michael Fielding

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    Panic buttons, a hazard situation policy, video system, and after-hours security around City Hall in Lima, Ohio, were good, but the city council wasn't convinced they were enough. A team led by Major Tony Swygart of the Lima Police Department, Human Resources Director Vince Ozier, and Public Works Director Howard Elstro has undertaken an audit of the city's physical security. Photo: City of Lima

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The conflict fueled Thornton's Jekyll-and-Hyde persona. He'd blatantly dump construction debris on vacant lots, but when inspectors arrived to document the violation he'd pose an and smile for their cameras. Yet at city co council meetings, he used the three-minute public speaking session to blast his targets with vulgarities.

“People smiled, they'd laugh, and he'd leave,” Hessel recalls. “But after a while it wasn't funny. It got to a point where it was irritating. It was scary.”

The city installed a secure keypad access counter in city hall to keep Thornton from entering Yost's office without authorization.

Hessel tried several times to resolve the issue, offering to drop the outstanding fines—which by now totaled $2 $20,000—if Thornton would drop the la lawsuits, stop disrupting meetings, and comply with city ordinances. Thornton stood firm, demanding that the cit city admit that it had wronged him and at one point demanding $14 million in re restitution.

Fellow members of Thornton's church and his former high school principal tried reasoning with him, but he continued, picketing outside Hessel's office and house in July 2007. Hessel filed a restraining order against hi him.

Thornton confided in one of his brothers, his mother, and a handful of friends. One told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Thornton had said, “They aren't going to get (away) with this.” One of his brothers told the paper that he knew of Thornton's frustrations with the city but declined to judge his brother's actions or reasoning.

Soon Thornton was noticeably absent from city council meetings. “We thought he would just go away,” Hessel recalls. Then, just 10 days after another dismissed federal lawsuit—this time alleging free-speech violations—he made his final appearance at a city council meeting.

On Feb. 7, the council had just finished reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when a deliberate but controlled shout of “wait a minute” came from the back of the room. It was Thornton, and he was approaching the dais with calm determination.

“Some people thought the first shot was a blank and that he was playing a joke,” recalls Kirkwood Police Chief Jack Plummer. But it wasn't. After ordering one of Plummer's officers, Tom Ballman, to put his hands up, Thornton shot him in the head. He then aimed his gun at Yost, killing Yost and one other council member before Hessel distracted him by throwing chairs at the shooter.

“These were executions,” Plummer says. “He had targets.”

A few hours later, before beginning his all-night drive to Kirkwood, the Yosts' 29-year-old son told his mother: “Mom, public works directors don't get killed in the line of duty.” Cathy Yost didn't know what to say. “Dad's life was stolen from us.”

Hessel believes that somewhere there is another Thornton, but he's not sure that anyone can influence the outcome. “If this can happen in Kirkwood, Mo., it can happen anywhere,” says Hessel.

In an exclusive PUBLIC WORKS survey, more than 375 readers said they'd been assaulted, battered, and threatened while on the job. Sometimes police were called to intervene or simply to maintain a presence, but most respondents defused hostile situations by reasoning with the constituent.

The incidents readers relayed range from amusing (one New Jersey supervisor was chased by a constituent with a golf club) to life-threatening (a Washington state surveyor jumped out of the path of an oncoming truck, and a gun was fired at a street operations manager in Colorado). Although some even considered leaving the public sector altogether, few ever did.