KIRKWOOD, Mo. (KMOV.com) – Kirkwood City Attorney John Hessel was in city hall when Charles Lee ‘Cookie’ Thornton opened fire in 2008.
“I [saw] ‘Cookie’ Thornton shoot Tom Ballman and can still remember and hear the shot, it sounded like a cannon when it went off, and I can still smell the gunfire. Then I saw him shoot Ken Yost, and then everything went in super slow motion for me,” recounted Hessel. “So, Mayor Swoboda, who was right next to me, got up and slid his chair back and, I don’t know if he was running or walking, but he got shot next and he fell right next to me, and I reached out and touched him. He had a bullet wound in the back of the right side behind his ear. And then, I now know but did not see, that he shot Connie Karr, and then he went behind the dais and he shot Mike Lynch.”
When the meeting first started there were about 30 or 40 people in the room, but after Thornton started shooting, Hessel said he only saw those who were shot and the gunman.
“I was trying to go out the entrance and that’s when ‘Cookie’ chased me rather than shooting others,” he said. “That’s when I did pick up the chairs and I again felt my father’s presence when I picked up a chair- it’s a plastic chair, it wasn’t going to protect me. I realized that and I had it in front of my face and I threw it and it actually hit his arms and moved his arms from left to right away from me. And I thought to myself ‘that was really lucky or some intervention.’ That’s when I picked up the second chair.”
After picking up the second chair, Hessel said he thought of his children and what moments he would miss out on if he could not get away.
“So, I took that chair and stepped forward, and hit him as hard as I could with that chair and then I picked up a third chair and threw it at him and now he’s actually falling backwards,” Hessel recalled.
After throwing the third chair, Hessel recalls thinking, ‘I’ve taken a chair to a gunfight and this act can’t work much longer.”
He then started running from Thornton. While trying to escape, Hessel said he looked back and saw Thornton fall near the bodies of Yost and Ballman.
Before being killed by police, Thornton killed five people and injured two others, including Mayor Mike Swoboda. Swoboda, who was also battling cancer, died months after the shooting.
During the shooting, Hessel said Thornton’s eyes were “like looking into the eyes of a shark, very menacing, no emotion.”
Ten years after the tragic shooting, Hessel said it feels like it just happened.
“You realize how fortunate you are, how lucky you are to be alive. I think about the people that we lost that evening, all of their hopes, their dreams, their expectations, their anticipations, those were all taken away from them in an instant. I always carry that thought with me, is how fragile life can be. I try now to sort of follow a motto, which is: Remember your last words to somebody may be your last words,” he said.
Hessel’s hope is that Kirkwood isn’t defined by the shooting but instead by the outpouring of support in the aftermath.
“The incident will always be something that Kirkwood will be tagged with but I hope what defines Kirkwood, and not just Kirkwood but the area of St. Louis, is the thoughtfulness, kindness of the people who reached out not only to me but everybody involved in that experience.”
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