"I never in a million years — I'm still waiting for someone to wake me up because I cannot believe this. Not him," said Theresa Billie, 32, who said she was his cousin.
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Cousins, aunts, uncles and other family members visited Thornton's mother, Lillie Holliday, at her apartment on Silver Lane in East Hartford on Tuesday. As they grieved the loss of a loved one, they also tried understanding what could have propelled Thornton to commit the acts they heard about in the news.
Holliday was too distraught to speak to a Courant reporter.
Thornton's sister, Mayshell Kinder, along with Billie and another cousin, said there was nothing about Thornton, whom they described as a "mama's boy," that could have foreshadowed such a deadly outburst. He was a hard worker. He didn't smoke. He didn't drink. He had never been in trouble with the law, they said.
"He was a really good person. I'm not a good person, but he was a good person," said Kinder, 40. "I would rather die first and have left my mom without me than without him."
The only clue that the family has about Thornton's motive for the shootings was his complaint that he was racially harassed at work.
A racial epithet and drawings of a noose had been left on the bathroom walls at Hartford Distributors, according to Darlene Hayles, 45, who said she was Thornton's cousin. He told family members that he complained to a supervisor about it, she said, but nothing was done.
A representative for Teamsters Local 1035 said Thornton never reported instances of racial discrimination.
"There has never been a racial discrimination complaint made to the union and there has not been one made to any state or federal office that I'm aware of," said Christopher Roos, secretary-treasurer of the union. "I never, ever, ever heard any complaint about that. Never."
John Hollis, the Teamsters' legislative representative at the state Capitol, said he was told Thornton had been caught on a video camera in the warehouse taking beer for himself. A meeting was scheduled Tuesday morning to confront him about the situation, Hollis said.
Hollis said in a phone interview that he had met Thornton at least a half-dozen times over the two years Thornton had worked there.
"The guy just seemed to be a good worker," said Hollis, who had worked for the company for 31 years as a driver before retiring eight years ago. Hollis said his son-in-law and Thornton "knew each other very well; they were very good friends."
Hollis said that as far as he knew, Thornton was the most recently hired driver at the company, having worked at first in a non-driving warehouse job.
"From my few meetings with him, he didn't stand out as one of those people who would do anything like this — just a co-worker to everyone," Hollis said.
Thornton filed for bankruptcy in 2000 at age 24, under the name Thornton Omar Sharriff. He reported $600 in the bank and nearly $16,000 in debts, including a car loan and student loans. At the time, he was a delivery driver in Middletown for Stericycle, a medical- and hazardous-waste disposal firm. A corporate official said the company would not discuss Thornton.
Thornton received a speeding ticket in February 2007 and another in December 2008 that led the state Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend his commercial driver's license for three months, according to DMV records.
He was hired at Hartford Distributors about two years ago and started working at the distribution center and worked his way up to driver, said Joanne Hannah, the mother of Thornton's girlfriend of eight years.
Hannah described Thornton as mellow and peaceful. He worked long shifts and sometimes worked weekends. Her daughter, Kristi Hannah, who was sharing an apartment with Thornton in East Windsor, was staying with a friend and did not want to speak publicly.
"She's just crying to me that she loved him and she can't believe he did this," Hannah said.
Thornton, who called his mother regularly, spoke to her Monday night and ended the conversation by saying that he loved her, Billie said. He called her Tuesday morning from Hartford Distributors. He told her he had shot some people, that he loved her and that he was sorry.
"They're coming," he said before ending the call, Billie said.
Vanessa de la Torre and David Owens contributed to this report.