A suburban city council meeting was transformed into a scene of carnage late Thursday when an enraged gunman burst in and shot seven people, five fatally, police said.
He managed to kill two police officers and three city employees before police shot him dead, St Louis County Police spokeswoman Tracy Panus told AFP.
The man, who had a history of disturbing council meetings with complaints about persecution by officials, rushed into the council chambers as the meeting was getting underway at around 7:00 pm (0100 GMT Friday), witnesses said.
"He came from the back of the room," said Janet McNichols, a St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter who was covering the meeting in Kirkwood.
"He kept saying something about, 'Shoot the mayor' and he just walked around shooting anybody he could."
The shooter first targeted a policeman in the meeting, said McNichols, who looked up to see officer Tom Ballman shot in the face.
He then shot Public Works Director Kenneth Yost, also in the head, she said.
"After that, I was on my stomach under the chairs," she said. "I laid on my stomach waiting to get shot. Oh God, it was a horror."
McNichols recognized the man, identified as Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, as a frequent presence at city council where he often directed angry words at Yost and the mayor.
The mayor, Mike Swoboda, was also shot, as was council member Michael Lynch, McNichols said.
Police would not release the names of the victims but the St. Louis Post Dispatch confirmed that one of the dead was city council woman Connie Karr.
Thornton continued to yell about the mayor while McNichols cowered under the chairs.
She then heard him approach the semicircular desk at the front of the room where the city council members sit, and continue to fire.
City Attorney John Hessel managed to fend him off by throwing chairs, she said, until police finally stormed into the room. There was more shouting, then more shots, and then she heard the officers say they got him.
The gunman had also shot and killed a police officer in a parking lot about a half a block from the city government building where the meeting was being held, police said.
Panus said the injured were a civilian and a city employee, one of them critically wounded.
The civilian was later identified as a reporter for a local newspaper chain.
"We don't know if it was a ricochet or what, but it hit him in the hand and shattered a bone or two," said Dave Bundy, Suburban Journals editorial director, who spoke with reporter Todd Smith in the emergency room.
Missouri Governor Matt Blunt said Kirkwood had been "terrorized by a senseless and horrific crime at an open government meeting."
"I join Missourians tonight in praying for the victims, their families and friends, and everyone in the community of Kirkwood," he said in a statement.
Thornton, who had twice been convicted of disorderly conduct for disrupting city council meetings and had been handcuffed and pulled from a meeting in May 2006, recently sued the city for prohibiting him from speaking out at meetings.
Thornton represented himself in the case and said his free speech rights had been violated.
A judge dismissed the case on January 28.
A popular star athlete in high school, Thornton's demeanor began to change when he started getting tickets for parking vehicles he used in his asphalt business outside his home, said Doug Vaughn, a sports anchor with KMOV who was a friend of Thornton's.
"He was more than a critic," Vaughn told the Post Dispatch. "It got to where he was showing up at every council meeting and trying to dominate everything. He kind of lost his mind."
Thornton's family said they had no inkling of his intentions when he left the house, saying he loved them, would be back soon," the paper reported.
Elsewhere in the United States Thursday, a gunman opened fire at an Ohio school, wounding his estranged wife in front of her students before fleeing the school and later killing himself during a three-hour standoff, police said.
And in Los Angeles, five people including an elite Los Angeles SWAT team police officer were shot dead during a bloody 10-hour siege at a private residence, authorities said.
In that incident, a man killed three family members and later fatally shot the police officer, before dying in an exchange of fire with police. (AFP)
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