When the county's former inspector for the Public Works Department's Division of Traffic and Parking noticed irregularities among the invoices of the longtime contractor, the harassing phone calls began—to Gonzalez's office, his cell phone, then his home.
Through his audits as inspector for the division, Gonzalez had noticed invoices with errors and expenses not approved under the contract. The county was being conned out of millions of dollars, so he confronted the contractor. In his daily dealings with the public, the mild-mannered Gonzalez learned how to talk to people. His friends told him that people opened up to him because of his ability to listen. After a while, colleagues would redirect calls from the most irate residents to him.
It wasn't so easy placating this latest antagonist. “He figured I was the new kid on the block and nobody was going to pay attention to me,” says Gonzalez, who'd been promoted from engineering technician. But when the contractor billed the county $1 million in 1992 for what turned out to be about half of that for work degreasing 7,000 parking stalls, the county attorney started paying attention. “It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the invoices were wrong,” Gonzalez recalls.
The harassment continued, and Gonzalez asked for a transfer to the traffic engineering division. But when the division merged just one year later with his old division, he could no longer avoid the contractor.
Only after the county sued the contractor to recoup its losses did the attorney recommend that Gonzalez file a restraining order against the contractor, who'd threatened to run over Gonzalez with a truck.
While the turbulence rippled up the county bureaucracy, Gonzalez, who has Crohn's Disease, was hospitalized half a dozen times. “I told my wife enough is enough,” he says.
Having spent 25 years in Maryland (13 with the county), though, Gonzalez had accumulated a robust retirement fund and was reluctant to leave. Finally, he heeded his wife's pointed warning: “She told me we had to leave or that I'd end up in a body bag.”
So, five years ago he moved his family to Orlando, Fla. “I was unemployed for a year,” he says. “I liquidated all my retirement money.”
The contractor never followed through with the threat, and the restraining order seemed to maintain the peace. Gonzalez later found a job as a project coordinator for the Orange County (Fla.) Department of Public Works' Engineering Design Division. Kirkwood's ever-smiling “Cookie” Thornton made good on his threats, though.
In 2001 he was charged with assault for throwing a handful of hay at Ken Yost after a site visit to inspect a potential ordinance violation. A month earlier, he'd been convicted of 19 violations and fined $12,250 for parking equipment without a permit and unloading debris on vacant residential lots.
Although the Public Works Department issued the tickets, it was his inspectors—not Yost himself—who cited Thornton. Underscoring the gravity of Thornton's actions, the department followed up with several cease-and-desist notices.
Despite the fines—which he refused to pay—Thornton continued to accrue citations. He received nearly 100 tickets in two years. “I told him we'd dismiss the charges if he simply complied with our ordinances,” says city at attorney John Hessel, who narrowly el eluded Thornton the night of Feb. 7 be before Thornton was shot and killed by police.
In 2002 Thornton was convicted in m municipal court of the assault charge an and an additional 26 ordinance violations. Yost was one of the city's witnesses.
Sixteen months later Thornton sued the city for malicious prosecution. When the case was dismissed, Thornton turned to the Missouri Supreme Court, filing a federal lawsuit against the court in January 2004. It was dismissed.
As the courts continued to rebuff him, Thornton became obsessed with the people he believed to be his adversaries: Hessel, former Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda, and Yost.