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January 5, 2009

“I still see the faces of the people…that died that day…”

Here at Bullet Counter Points we like to highlight the exceptional work that everyday Ameri Today we focus on the victim of a horrible shooting tragedy that has turned his grief and trauma into a determination to help others.

On the evening of February 7, 2008, Todd Smith, a reporter for the Kirkwood-Webster Journal, was covering a city council meeting at Kirkwood City Hall in Missouri. Just after the meeting began, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton—a local resident who had been embroiled in a long running property dispute with the City of Kirkwood—entered the chambers and opened fire with two handguns, a .44 Magnum revolver and a .40 caliber handgun (the latter of which had been taken from a police officer Thornton killed in the parking lot outside the meeting). Before he was stopped by police, Thornton killed a total of five people (two police officers, two city council members, and Kirkwood’s public works director) and wounded two others. One of the wounded was Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda, who would finally succumb to his head injuries and pass away seven months later. Also wounded was Todd, who was seated in the front row at the meeting and shot in the hand. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “[Thornton] was completely possessed … He looked at me directly and I felt complete rage.”

Like most of those present at the meeting that night, Todd was familiar with Thornton and his grievances. “I had seen him before at other city council meetings, and on one occasion he decided to speak at a council meeting and I decided to ask him what his issues were,” he recalls. “I had trouble understanding him and what he was wanting—he seemed angry and I had just started on Kirkwood beat and did not know his whole history. Even at this particular meeting he was somewhat incoherent and erratic and wearing a sign on his body in protest of the Kirkwood City Council.”

Sadly, this was not the first time Todd had been a victim of gun violence. He describes another traumatic incident that occurred more than a decade earlier:

“I had moved to New Castle, Delaware. A few days after July 4, 1997, I went to a nearby 7-Eleven around 9:00 p.m. I purchased a soda and was walking through a shopping center when two teenagers came up behind me with guns in their hands. They asked for money. I ran, and one of them shot at me. They ran away. I kept walking, but noticed there was blood coming from the back of my leg. I made it to a gas station that was across the street. I told the clerk to call 911. A guy getting gas noticed me sitting down in front of the gas station and took off his shirt and it was used as a tourniquet to stop my bleeding. I never saw this man again, and wish I had the chance to thank him. About 30 minutes after the shooting, an ambulance arrived on the scene and took me to a nearby hospital. A doctor came to see me and studied the wound and decided to pull the bullet out. He did numb the area, but I remember it being a painful process. I was in the hospital for three days before being released. The African-American teenagers that committed the act were never found. A police officer did come by once, I looked at pictures, but it was hard to tell who it was. I only saw them briefly, it was dark out, and their faces were partially covered.”

Todd’s recovery from these violent episodes has been difficult. The injuries he sustained in the Kirkwood shooting required two surgeries, the second of which involved a joint replacement. “I will never fully recover from this incident,” he says. “Emotionally, I have come a long way, but have a ways to go. I still have a fear of being alone at night and have fears of being in a setting with a large group of people.”

Despite the trauma he has been through, however, Todd wants to create something positive from his experience. “I feel the need to be a spokesperson on gun control,” he says. “The victims in Kirkwood were expecting to leave the meeting to go home and be with their families, like any other night. Instead, they never had a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. I think there is something to be said about stronger gun control measures so people can go on living with the people they care about.”

Todd notes, “I am not against guns. I grew up around guns. I lived in a rural area, where people hunted and worked at a gun club. I would not like to see people’s right to have a gun taken away. I just believe in properly screening those who want to purchase guns, and developing ways to identify guns so that we know where they came from and where they were originally purchased.”

He has contacted the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and become involved in their Program for Victims and Survivors. Todd will take part in legislative advocacy efforts at the federal and state level, and reach out to other journalists to educate them about gun violence prevention.

Still, some memories do not go away easily. “I still see the faces of the people that were friends of mine that died that day in Kirkwood,” Todd says. “One did her best to help people like Thornton. She worked to make sure that the council considered the views of constituents so their concerns were always heard and represented. I also will never forget Kirkwood Police Officer Tom Ballman. He stood up when Thornton pulled out his guns and in that instant he was killed. This image will haunt me for the rest of my life.

“The instantaneous ending of a human life—which guns allow for—should not be allowed.”

1 comment:

  1. Todd, thanks for sharing your story. I live in Missouri and am very interested in what our state could be doing to better protect its citizens. I'd love to talk sometime if you'd be interested.