WASHINGTON PARK, Ill. (AP) — A southwestern Illinois village's hall was draped in black bunting Friday as locals grappled with grief and a leadership gap a day after the mayor was gunned down in his car while coming home from his second job.
Investigators were still holding two people they described as "persons of interest" in Thursday's killing of 52-year-old John Thornton, though no charges had been filed as of Friday afternoon.
"We strongly believe we've got the people who did it," but investigators were awaiting lab reports and a decision by St. Clair County prosecutors about charges, Washington Park police Detective Kim McAfee said Friday.
Messages left with Illinois State Police heading the investigation were not immediately returned, and calls to the prosecutor's office went unanswered.
Thornton was shot three times at close range in his car shortly before 6 a.m. Thursday after coming off his overnight shift at a pumping station serving the area's Mississippi River levee district, McAfee said. He died soon after at a hospital.
Police suspect the part-time mayor known for his generosity with Washington Park's panhandlers was driving around checking on the village, as he routinely did, when the shooter somehow forced his way or was allowed into Thornton's car, McAfee said. After the gunfire, the car crashed into a tree, heavily damaging the front passenger side, as if the gravely wounded Thornton purposely tried to injure his assailant, McAfee said Friday.
"It's like what you'd see on TV — the dead man still has a final say," McAfee said.
A witness said the assailant limped away to a waiting car, said McAfee, who hours later noted a limp while arresting one of the people sought for questioning.
Authorities have refused to discuss a possible motive.
Thornton narrowly won re-election a year ago to a second four-year term and recently took part in anti-violence marches in his community, where the 2000 Census indicates nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. The median household income in the village best known for its strip clubs, blight and financial problems was just $21,132 as of the 2000 Census — roughly half that of the nation as a whole.
"It's hard, man. Real hard," precinct committeeman Clyde "Stonewall" Jackson said of Thornton's death. The day the mayor died, the two had plans to work together demolishing a house in Jackson's area as part of a broader push to rid the town of eyesore buildings. "You just figure this (tragedy) is just a dream, but it's not."
By Illinois law, the village's trustees must decide which of them should temporarily replace Thornton until an election in April of next year, at which time voters will choose someone to finish the remaining two years in Thornton's term, Illinois Municipal League executive director Larry Frang said. No trustees meeting about the succession was planned as of Friday, said Cynthia Stovall-Hollinsworth, a board member.
"We know the village cannot go unattended," she said.
The responsibilities could be considered daunting, particularly when it comes to fixing the village's finances.
Washington Park filed for rarely used Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in July for the second time in five years, citing assets of less than $50,000 and debt of more than $1 million. Chapter 9 allows governmental units to restructure.
The village made a similar filing in 2004, claiming a $1.6 million debt, but that case was dismissed because it emerged from insolvency, albeit only briefly.
Thefts from the village's coffers haven't helped. Two former village workers — a former Thornton aide and a one-time payroll clerk — are serving federal prison sentences for separately pillaging more than a half a million dollars in recent years, in some cases causing the employees' pension funds to be short.
In October 2006, a woman was sentenced to nearly three years in federal prison and ordered to repay the more than $170,000 she pilfered from the village after getting Washington Park's bank name and account routing numbers from a campaign flier left at her home in 2002.
Funeral arrangements for Thornton were pending with L. King Funeral Chapel in Belleville.