In 2008, Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton, an African American man, entered Kirkwood City Hall and killed six white people. Kirkwood is a suburb of St. Louis.
Ten years later, our student newspaper, The Journal, did a ten year update of the shooting in Kirkwood. We found the changes made to the city since the shooting, including increased security. We also reported the continued racial divide between the city of Kirkwood and Meacham Park, the historic Black community.
Over the project, I wrote two story, created video and took photos. One of my stories was featured on the front page of the special issue. I also won first place in feature writing as well as feature photography for my work on the project from the Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Award Region 7 awards.
Below is the story that won the Mark of Excellence, as well as a video and photos I took throughout the project.
You can view the full project here.
Reporter Todd Smith’s scars will never heal after Kirkwood shooting
Todd Smith still finds it hard to go anywhere without first looking for an easy escape route. He makes sure the room is safe before he leaves his son Drew at daycare.
“I still make sure doors are closed and stuff like that. I’m always cognizant of all the other parents around,” Smith said. “Because that’s my kid, and I don’t want anything like that to happen to my kid, ever.”
Smith is the only person injured in the Kirkwood City Hall shooting 10 years ago to still be alive today. He was a reporter covering the meeting for the Suburban Journals when the shooting occurred.
Smith said when Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton entered the courtroom, he seemed different than usual. He said he watched Thornton pull out a gun and shoot the police officer to his left. Smith was shot when he tried to stand up and escape the room. The bullet went through his hand and grazed his stomach.
Ten years after the shooting, Smith wrote a book about his survival and recovery. The book, “Murder, Romance, and Two Shootings,” covers three tragedies in his life: an armed robbery, a gay bashing and the Kirkwood shooting. The book is currently undergoing edits and will be released later this year. Smith said the shooting was the hardest part of the book to write.
“The difficult part was doing the talk through of what happened when Cookie Thornton shot people,” Smith said. “That still is the toughest part of the book.”
Smith said if Thornton were still alive, he would still be afraid of him. He said he is not sure how to forgive Thornton for what he did.
Smith said he had nightmares after the shooting about Thornton coming back and killing him. He attended counseling for two years after he was injured. Smith still finds it difficult to be in Kirkwood and will take a longer route just to avoid the road Kirkwood City Hall is on if he has to go into the city.
“We go to all the places in St. Louis, and I’m still not comfortable with going to Kirkwood,” Smith said. “We don’t go out to eat there because I just lose my stomach. I just have a bad mojo about the whole town.”
Physically, Smith’s hand still aches when the weather changes. It is hard for him to type for long periods of time without taking a break. He cannot lift heavy bags and sometimes loses his grip when trying to hold things.
David Kaplan was Smith’s registered domestic partner at the time of the shooting. Kaplan said Smith called him as soon as Smith was outside Kirkwood City Hall. Kaplan said Smith had not made it clear that he had been shot and just repeatedly asked Kaplan to come pick him up.
Kaplan eventually met Smith at St. John’s Hospital after learning what happened. Smith proposed to Kaplan while recovering from his injuries. They married in 2009, just one year after the shooting.
“You know, sometimes weird things happen. You go under surgery and you don’t come out of it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to make sure he knew how much I loved him.”
Kaplan said he was fortunate to have had the flexibility with his job to attend doctor’s appointments with Smith and help him recover. Ten years later, Kaplan still worries when Smith is running late.
“Everyone thinks ‘they could be on the side of the road in a ditch someplace,’ well, you know, I got the call, right,” Kaplan said.
Dr. Gregory Goldman is a psychiatrist who studies the aftermath of mass shootings and their effect on the survivors. He said it is common for mass shooting victims to feel unsafe in situations where they used to feel comfortable. He said sleeping and eating issues were also common effects.
Goldman said the recovery process for mass shooting victims often depends on how close they were to the incident. Mass shootings are harder for those who were injured than those who were not.
“Your proximity to the event on average is going to determine the degree for which it is traumatic to you,” Goldman said. “The more directly affected you were by it, the more it’s going to have an effect on you.”
For Smith, the events at Kirkwood are still hard to talk about. He said the shooting will always be in the back of his head; it created a different reality. He said he did not expect to witness a live shooting during his journalism career. The shooting caused outer scars as well as inner trauma.
“The fact that [Thornton] caused me to see people being killed..I didn’t set out to do that,” Smith said. “I was just doing my regular job as a reporter, and [Thornton] gave me a permanent disability for my entire life.”