The Carthage nursing home shooting was a
mass murder that occurred on March 29, 2009, when a gunman opened fire
at the Pinelake Health and Rehab nursing home in Carthage, North
The shooter, 45-year-old Robert Stewart, killed
eight people and wounded another two before being shot and apprehended
by a responding police officer. Stewart's estranged wife, a nurse at
the nursing home and the apparent main target, survived the shooting
unharmed, as she was hiding in a bathroom in the Alzheimer ward of the
building, which is secured by passcode-protected doors.
Stewart, who is being held in North Carolina’s
maximum security Central Prison in Raleigh, was charged with eight
counts of first-degree murder. On September 3, 2011 he was found
guilty of eight counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to 142
years to 179 1/2 years in prison. The defense had argued that Stewart
was under the influcene of Ambien during the shooting, leaving him
unable to control his actions.
Robert Stewart, dressed in a bib overall, arrived
at the parking lot of the nursing home just before 10:00 a.m., where
he shot several times at his wife's car, shattering its windows. He
also shot at Michael Lee Cotten, a visitor, in his car, when he pulled
into the parking lot, and hit him in the left shoulder. Cotten, who
later stated that Stewart was "very calm, very deliberate" when he
fired at him, managed to run into the building and warn the people
inside of the gunman. Police received the first emergency calls at
approximately 10:00 a.m. and the only police officer on duty, Justin
Garner, was dispatched to the scene about one minute later.
Leaving a .22 caliber rifle atop a Jeep Cherokee,
Stewart entered the nursing home armed with a handgun and a shotgun
and went down the hall apparently searching for his wife, Wanda Neal,
who had been reassigned to the Alzheimer unit that morning. Upon
realizing that his wife wasn't where she usually worked he headed to
the area for Alzheimer's patients which was secured by passcode-protected
doors. As he walked through the hallways of the nursing home, Stewart
killed seven residents, two of them in their wheelchairs, while the
staff tried to bring the patients to safety. One nurse, Jerry Avant,
was also shot and killed when he tried to stop the gunman.
Stewart was finally stopped by officer Garner in
the hallway at about 10:05 a.m. After refusing several orders to drop
his weapon, Stewart lowered his shotgun and fired a shot at Garner,
hitting him in the leg and foot. Garner returned fire and hit the
gunman in the shoulder, incapacitating him. When the shooting was over,
six people were dead and five others, including Stewart, were taken to
a nearby hospital. Two of the wounded died the same day. In the
hospital Stewart told a nurse that he had taken six “nerve pills” and
did not remember anything about the shooting.
Robert Kenneth Wayne Stewart was born in Robeson
County on September 12, 1963. When he was a young boy, his family
moved to Eastwood in Moore County. His father was a house painter, and
his mother worked at an office of a paving company in Pinebluff. After
finishing middle school in Aberdeen he attended Pinecrest High School,
but dropped out before graduating. Among his peers Stewart was known
as a a quiet loner with a very bad temper every now and then.
At the age of 18, Stewart married for the first
time, though his marriage lasted only for a few months. In 1983 he
married then 17-year-old Wanda Gay Neal, but this marriage also failed
within three years, due to Stewart's extreme possessiveness, his
drinking habits and his violent temper. Wanda Neal's mother Margaret
Neal later stated: "He had a rage, it would just explode over
everything. He would be good and then something would just set him off."
However, both Margaret Neal and Wanda Neal's 14-year-old daughter
Jamie said that, as far as they knew, Stewart had never hit his wife.
In 1986 Stewart married again, though he still carried a torch for his
former wife. According to his third wife, Sue Griffin, Stewart would
often compare her to Wanda Neal and complain that "Wanda doesn't do it
Stewart worked as a house painter and had his own
painting business, but had filed twice for bankruptcy. He had been out
of work for over a year before the shooting, after injuring his back
and leg. He served six years in the National Guard and never rose
above Private rank before receiving an honorable discharge. In 1995 he
joined the Clay Road Farm Hunt Club in Moore County, where he soon
alienated the other members because of his drinking problem and his
temper. He was eventually thrown out of the hunting club, after
threatening Larry Allred, one of its founders, stating that "he wasn't
scared of no damn Allred. He'd cut Larry Allred's guts out and watch."
In 2001, after 15 years of marriage to Sue Griffin,
Stewart divorced again and returned to Wanda Neal. Promising her he
would change, stop drinking and treat her well they married a second
time in June 2002.
In the end Stewart wouldn't let his wife go anywhere
alone. Wanda Neal finally left her husband three weeks prior to the
shooting, after he put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her.
After his wife had left him, Stewart began calling her family,
sometimes at 2 or 3 a.m., claiming there was an emergency and he
needed to see Wanda and her parents. He also tried to contact his
former wife, Sue Griffin, through her family, telling them that he was
suffering from prostate cancer, that he was preparing to “go away” and
“was planning on leaving town to visit places he hadn’t seen.”
According to Mack Hancock, who had seen him in the last week before
the shooting, Stewart seemed very depressed, saying that “everything
had gone to hell."
Robert Stewart guilty of 2nd-degree murder,
sentenced to life in prison
By Michael Zennie - FayObserver.com
September 4, 2011
- Robert Stewart will spend the rest of his life in prison for killing
eight people at the Pinelake Health & Rehabilitation Center in March
Stewart was sentenced Saturday to serve at least
142 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of eight counts of
second-degree murder in the March 29, 2009, shooting rampage. Seven
elderly residents and a nurse at the Carthage nursing home were killed.
The judge imposed the maximum sentence - 15 years,
nine months to 19 years, eight months - for each count of murder, with
the terms to run consecutively.
The jury deliberated for almost 10 hours over
Friday and Saturday before reaching its verdict.
The courtroom was silent as Moore County Superior
Court Judge James Webb read the jury's findings in the first count of
murder, that of 98-year-old Louise DeKler.
Family members of the victims, some of whom have
attended the trial every day since jury selection began July 11 in
Albemarle, sobbed and stared at Stewart on the other side of the
Stewart looked at the floor, his face blank. It's
the same look he had on his face for the duration of the trial.
The jury found Stewart not guilty of two counts of
attempted first-degree murder against police Cpl. Justin Garner and
Michael Cotton, a visitor who was shot.
Jurors found Stewart guilty of each of the other
seven charges against him, including assault with a deadly weapon with
intent to kill.
Immediately after the judge read the jury's verdict,
he moved into the sentencing phase.
Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland called
family members of the victims to testify.
Connie Hedrick Evans, the oldest daughter of 79-year-old
Bessie Hedrick, choked back tears and tried to maintain her composure
as she testified about her mother, who was killed in her bed.
"I've not missed a day in this courtroom for two
and a half years. They said this will help with closure. This is not
closure," Evans said.
Then, looking directly at Stewart from the witness
box she said: "Your mother is sitting behind you. And supposedly you
don't have a relationship."
She paused, words failing her.
"You're the one. You're the one."
Linda DeKler Feola told the judge that she wishes
she could be the mother that DeKler was.
DeKler, who was 98, was lively and active. She
loved to gamble in Atlantic City, N.J. - she played double slots.
"On Sunday, that man killed her like a roach. And
that man will not be going where my mom is. I've heard tell that he
was saved. Uh-uh, not in this world," Feola said.
Stewart did not speak in his own defense. Instead,
defense lawyer Jonathan Megerian told the judge that Stewart remembers
nothing of the shootings but is truly sorry for his actions.
His lawyers filed notice they plan to appeal the
In all, Stewart's sentence totals 142 years to 179
1/2 years in prison.
Many family members said they were upset Stewart
was not convicted of first-degree murder. But they said they were
relieved he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.
"If that's not first-degree murder, I don't know
what first-degree murder is," Evans said outside of court.
Strickland, the prosecutor, said he still believed
Stewart's crimes warranted the death penalty and was somewhat
disappointed with the second-degree verdict.
If jurors had convicted Stewart of first-degree
murder, he could have faced the death penalty.
In five weeks of testimony, the trial did not focus
on whether Stewart committed the killings at the nursing home where
his estranged wife worked. Instead, defense lawyers turned the case
into an argument over whether he was legally responsible for the
The cornerstone of Stewart's defense was based on
the burgeoning scientific and legal evidence surrounding side effects
of the popular sleep aid Ambien.
Stewart had been taking the drug for two years, and
defense experts testified he took a high dose of it the night before
Megerian and Franklin Wells, both public defenders,
employed a rarely used defense called "automatism" to argue that
Stewart was not in control of his actions when he committed the
A Raleigh forensic psychiatrist hired by the
defense testified that Stewart was "sleepwalking" during the shootings
because he was suffering the side effects of Ambien.
Ambien has been reported to cause strange behavior
in a small number of users - from sleep-driving to sleep-eating.
A toxicologist testified about a case of a candy
store owner who got out of bed, drove to his shop, unlocked the door
and was found inside gorging on candy - all while asleep.
But prosecutors argued that the evidence showed
that Stewart clearly planned the shootings in an effort to retaliate
against his estranged wife, Wanda Neal, who left him two weeks prior.
In order for him to carry out the shootings,
Stewart would have had to take four guns from his home, three of them
from a locked safe, as well as multiple rounds of three kinds of
He then drove 20 minutes from his home outside of
Robbins to the nursing home in Carthage.
Once there, he found his wife's PT Cruiser in the
parking lot and fired multiple rounds into the windows and the
Prosecutors said these were complex actions that
could only have been carried out by a man on a mission.
Several notes and letters that Stewart wrote in the
days before the shootings were among the evidence that prosecutors
pointed to for signs of premeditation.
In a journal entry dated eight days before the
rampage, Stewart wrote about how he thought he had prostate cancer and
how he "hurt deep" because his wife left him. He said he was
"I thought about taking a lot of people with me,
but I don't care to do that," he wrote.
But prosecutors had a high bar to clear to obtain a
Stewart's lawyers successfully argued that the
judge should shift the burden of proof for the Ambien defense to
This meant that if the jury had any reasonable
doubt Stewart wasn't in control of his actions, they had to acquit him
of the charges.
Witnesses described Stewart walking through the
hallways of the nursing home shortly after 10 a.m. on March 29 with a
12-gauge pump shotgun, shooting seven patients in their beds or
wheelchairs at close range.
He pursued 39-year-old nurse Jerry Avant, who was
trying to push patients out of harm's way, before cornering him in a
service hallway and shooting him at least two times, according to
Avant survived his wounds, which included a broken
femur, long enough to be taken to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital,
where he died in surgery.
The other victims were: 89-year-old Lillian Dunn,
75-year-old Tessie Garner, 78-year-old John Goldston, 89-year-old
Margaret Johnson and 88-year-old Jesse Musser.
Stewart's rampage was ended by a single bullet from
Carthage police Cpl. Justin Garner, who testified that he told Stewart
multiple times to drop his shotgun. When Stewart swung the weapon
toward Garner, the officer fired his .40-caliber Glock pistol once
from 40 yards away, hitting Stewart under the shoulder. Stewart fired
his shotgun at almost exactly the same time and several small lead
pellets struck Garner in the leg and foot.
Officials probe role of relationship in NC
By Mike Baker - Guardian.co.uk
March 31, 2009
CARTHAGE, N.C. (AP) - A painter charged with
killing eight people at a North Carolina nursing home never got over
his estranged wife who worked there, according to a different woman he
married during a break in the rocky relationship.
Robert Stewart is accused of killing seven patients
and a nurse at Pinelake Health and Rehab nursing home while his
estranged wife, identified by a neighbor as Wanda Luck, was working
there Sunday. She was not among those killed.
The two had recently split, said Carthage Police
Chief Chris McKenzie, and court documents show the breakup was part of
an on-again, off-again relationship that spread over many years and
bookended other failed marriages.
Even after they divorced in the mid-1980s and
married other people, Stewart still talked about Luck, said Sue
Griffin, who was Stewart's wife for 15 years before he and Luck
reunited and married each other -again- in June 2002.
Griffin said Stewart would often compare her and
Luck, complaining that, "Wanda doesn't do it like that."
"I'd look at him and say, 'Well, I ain't Wanda,'"
Griffin said in an interview Monday. "As time went on, I could tell he
wasn't quite over her."
Griffin said in an earlier interview that Stewart
had recently started telling family he had cancer and was preparing
for a long trip and to "go away."
Authorities declined to elaborate on the role the
relationship between Stewart and Luck may have played in the rampage,
but the prosecutor who charged the 45-year-old suspect with murder
left no doubt the attack had a purpose.
"We can share this: This was not a random act of
violence," said Moore County District Attorney Maureen Krueger.
A day after the shootings, Krueger said authorities
didn't plan to release much more information about Stewart or the case
outside of the courtroom. Several search warrants police executed in
the hours after the shooting were sealed, and Krueger would not say
But it appeared the relationship between Stewart -nicknamed
"Pee Wee" by his hunting buddies because, one said, he's about 6-foot-2
and 300 pounds- and Luck was tied in some way to the rampage.
"We're certainly looking into the fact that it may
be domestic-related," McKenzie said.
According to marriage records in Moore County, a
19-year-old Stewart married 17-year-old Wanda Gay Neal in July 1983.
They divorced three years later, and both were involved in several
other marriages before they reunited and married a second time in June
2002. McKenzie said he believed the couple had recently separated
One of Luck's former husbands, Joseph Ferguson,
said Monday that their union lasted less than two years. He said Luck
talked about Stewart, whom he later met, calling him a "normal guy"
and saying he was shocked by Sunday's events.
"I don't want to get into details about their
marriage, but it was rocky, I can tell you that," Ferguson said.
Several telephone numbers for Luck and her family
were disconnected, and a knock at the door was unanswered at an
address in nearby Robbins. A neighbor of the couple's home in Carthage,
Mark Barnett, said Luck was "a good person" who was born and raised in
the North Carolina Sandhills community.
"I can't even imagine what she's going through,"
Stewart made his first court appearance Monday on
eight counts of first-degree murder and a single charge of felony
assault of a law enforcement officer. His court-appointed attorney,
John Megerian of Asheboro, declined to comment because he hadn't
spoken to his client.
McKenzie wasn't aware of criminal activity in
Stewart's past, and records in Moore County show the only charges on
his record stem from a drunken-driving case in 1988. He was involved
in a few minor civil complaints, including a 2002 order that he
surrender $1,103 after a woman complained his business failed at
repainting some wrought iron furniture.
Authorities said Stewart arrived at Pinelake, a
110-bed nursing home and care center for patients with Alzheimer's
disease, around 10 a.m. Sunday. McKenzie said he was armed with more
than one weapon, and witnesses said he was shooting both a "deer gun"
and a shotgun.
Several people inside the home called 911, pleading
for help: "There's a man in here with a double-barrel shotgun shooting
people! White man with a beard."
The shooting spree was ended by 25-year-old Master
Officer Justin Garner. McKenzie said Garner, a training officer with
more than four years on the Carthage force and a past winner of the
department's officer of the year award, didn't wait for backup.
"If that's not heroism, I don't know what is,"
McKenzie said. "He had to go to all the way through the facility to
encounter this individual. It would be hard for me to believe he
didn't (hear gunfire)."
Stewart wounded Garner three times in the leg as
they traded gunfire, and the single shot Garner fired from his .40-caliber
pistol hit Stewart in the chest. He was being held Monday at the
state's Central Prison in Raleigh.
Authorities identified the victims as Pinelake
residents Tessie Garner, 88; Lillian Dunn, 89; Jessie Musser, 88;
Bessie Hendrick, 78; John Goldston, 78; Margaret Johnson, 89; Louise
Decker, 98; and nurse Jerry Avent. Tessie Garner wasn't related to the
police officer who ended the rampage.
Frank Feola, 63, gathered the belongings of his
mother-in-law, whom he identified as Louise DeKler. As he packed up a
table and a collage of photos, Feola called Stewart an "animal" who
doesn't deserve the death penalty.
"That would be too easy," he said. "I feel like I'm
walking around in a dream, that somebody could do something like this."
Musser had lived at Pinelake for only six weeks,
said his son-in-law, Jim Foster, 47, of Aberdeen. He said the man had
Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and was blind, deaf and used a
wheelchair. Foster said the family was now trying to figure out how to
tell Musser's wife, who has dementia and lives at the same facility,
that her husband is dead.
"She was upset that they didn't bring him to see
her yesterday," Foster said. "I don't know how we're going to break it
to her. You got a clue?"
Alleged Gunman’s Wife Worked at Nursing Home
By Shaila Dewan - The New York Times
March 30, 2009
CARTHAGE, N.C. — The man accused of killing eight
people on Sunday morning at a nursing home here may have chosen the
building as his target because his estranged wife was working there
when the shootings occurred, officials said on Monday.
“We’re certainly looking into the fact that it may
be domestic-related,” said Chief Chris T. McKenzie of the Carthage
The link is the first investigators have revealed
between the man, whom they identified as Robert Stewart, and the site
of the rampage, although officials declined to discuss a precise
“When can one look into the heart and mind of
another person and truly know what they think?” Maureen Krueger, the
Moore County district attorney, asked at an afternoon news conference.
“The information on motive is incomplete at this time. We can share
this: this was not a random act of violence.”
According to records at the Moore County Sheriff’s
Department, Mr. Stewart’s wife, whose maiden name was Wanda Gay Neal,
was taken from the nursing home to the hospital to see her husband
after he was wounded by a police officer who responded to the shooting.
The Associated Press, quoting a neighbor, said Ms. Neal worked at the
nursing home as a nursing assistant.
Mr. Stewart will be charged with eight counts of
first-degree murder, Ms. Krueger said. The victims ranged in age from
Jerry Avant Jr., a 39-year-old nurse, to Louise DeKler, 98, who had
enjoyed bowling well into her 80s. At least two people were killed as
they sat in their wheelchairs, one witness said.
Mr. Stewart, 45, and Ms. Neal, 43, have a long
history. They have married each other twice, the first time when she
was 17. Within three years, they had divorced, but they remarried in
Ms. Neal had three other husbands in between. One
was Kevin Luck, and some neighbors of the couple identified her as
Wanda Luck, though it was not clear what name she currently uses. Mr.
Stewart has been married four times. According to court papers, he is
disabled and has an income of $786 a month.
A witness to the shooting, Michael Lee Cotten, said
Mr. Stewart weighed about 300 pounds and was dressed in bib overalls.
In the days leading up to the shooting, Mr. Stewart
was apparently down on his luck. “He seemed real depressed,” said Mack
Hancock, who saw Mr. Stewart last week. Mr. Stewart said he had
prostate cancer, Ms. Neal had left him, and “everything had gone to
hell,” Mr. Hancock recalled.
Sue Griffin, who was married to Mr. Stewart for
more than 15 years, until 2002, said she had noticed some unusual
behavior recently. Ms. Griffin said that the two had not spoken since
they split up, but that in recent days Mr. Stewart had tried to
contact her through her mother, sister, son and neighbor. He told her
son that he had cancer and “was planning on leaving town to visit
places he hadn’t seen,” she said.
On Sunday morning, Mr. Cotten, 53, pulled into the
parking lot of Pinelake Health and Rehab to visit his great-aunt. “The
alleged suspect just leveled his weapon, which appeared to be a rifle
or shotgun, at me in my vehicle and began shooting before I even came
to a complete stop in the parking lot,” Mr. Cotten said.
The car windows were shattered, and Mr. Cotten was
hit by a pellet in the left shoulder. “He was very calm, very
deliberate; he looked right straight at me,” he said.
Mr. Cotten ran into the building, where he warned
that shots had been fired before heading toward his aunt’s room. When
he heard the gunman enter the building, he took refuge in a bathroom.
“You could hear him coming down the hallway and just shooting randomly,
and people hollering and screaming,” he said.
Then Justin Garner, the only police officer on duty
that morning in Carthage, responded to an emergency call and entered
the building alone, exchanging fire with the gunman, Chief McKenzie
said at a news conference. Mr. Stewart suffered one gunshot wound to
the upper torso, Chief McKenzie said, and Officer Garner was wounded
by three pellets in the foot and leg.
“Whether or not he realizes it now, he will
hopefully someday realize how many lives he actually saved,” Chief
McKenzie said, speaking of Officer Garner.
He added that the police had recovered several
weapons the gunman carried into the building.
On Monday, many of the victims’ families were still
in shock. The family of Tessie Garner, 88, sat in folding chairs on a
porch adorned with white flowers, crying and eating cake. Jim Foster
declined to say much about his father-in-law, Jesse Musser, an 88-year-old
retired railroad machinist, except that “he was a quiet man and a
Traci Pennypacker, 43, said she had spent the day
wondering why her aunt’s mother, Ms. DeKler, had died this way. “Had
this not happened,” Ms. Pennypacker said, “I just can’t imagine that
she wouldn’t have lived to be in her hundreds."
Gunman Kills 8 at a N. Carolina Nursing Home
By A.G. Sulzberger and Mark Binker - The New York
March 29, 2009
A gunman opened fire Sunday at a nursing home in
Carthage, N.C., killing seven elderly patients and a nurse and
injuring several other people, including a police officer, the
The shooting began around 10 a.m. at Pinelake
Health and Rehab, a one-story brick building with white rocking chairs
The patients were identified by The Associated
Press as Louise DeKler, 98; Lillian Dunn, 89; Tessie Garner, 88; John
Goldston, 78; Bessie Hendrick, 78; Margaret Johnson, 89; and Jesse
Musser, 88. All were residents. The nurse was identified as Jerry
Avant Jr., 39.
Frances Greene, the sister of Mr. Avant, said the
authorities believed that her brother was shot while trying to stop
“He just lay down his life to protect the residents
and employees there,” Ms. Greene said. “Unfortunately he lost his life.
But he was a hero.”
The gunman was identified as Robert Stewart, 45. Mr.
Stewart was wounded and apprehended at the scene, said Maureen Krueger,
the Moore County district attorney. Officials released few details
about the attack, including what, if any, motive Mr. Stewart, a
resident of the county, might have had.
The A.P. reported that while the authorities
declined to comment on a possible motive, Mr. Stewart’s ex-wife said
he had recently been reaching out to family members, telling them that
he had cancer and that he was preparing to “go away.”
The ex-wife, Sue Griffin, told The A.P. that she
had been married to Mr. Stewart for 15 years. They had not spoken
since divorcing in 2001, she said, but he had been trying to call her
over the past week through her son, mother, sister and grandmother.
Ms. Griffin said Mr. Stewart had once been a
painter. She said she had no idea whether her ex-husband was connected
to the nursing home.
“He did have some violent tendencies from time to
time,” Ms. Griffin said. “I wouldn’t put it past him. I hate to say it,
but it is true.”
Mr. Stewart is charged with eight counts of first-degree
murder and a single charge of felony assault of a law enforcement
officer, The A.P. reported.
Bobby Hyman, 48, who lives a half-mile from Mr.
Stewart’s residence, said Mr. Stewart rented the house and 10 acres of
land and moved in about a year ago.
Mr. Hyman described Mr. Stewart as “just a good old
country farm guy.” “He’d let me know if anybody went on my property he
didn’t recognize,” Mr. Hyman said.
Families of victims spent much of the day gathered
at the nearby First Baptist Church. Many people streamed into the
nursing home, on the outskirts of Carthage, to check on loved ones.
Michael Maness, 53, showed up at the home after
learning about the shooting while at a church in a nearby town. His
sister is a resident of the home. “She’s just a little shook up,” Mr.
Bernard Bryant, the administrator of the facility,
declined to answer questions. “Our concerns are with our residents,
our families and our staff,” Mr. Bryant said.
According to the home’s Web site, it is a 120-bed
facility that offers rehabilitation therapy, nursing care and hospice
care and has a special Alzheimer’s unit. The site says it is one of
several homes run by Peak Resources, a North Carolina company founded
After the attack, six people were taken by
ambulance to the nearby FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, a
hospital spokeswoman said. By early evening, three had been released,
one was still being treated and two had died.
Officer Justin Garner was shot in the leg while
responding to the shooting. “But for his action we certainly could
have had a worse tragedy,” said Ms. Krueger, the district attorney.
Officials in this south-central North Carolina town
were stunned by the violence.
“This doesn’t happen in Carthage; this is brand new
to us,” said Carol Sparks, the town manager. “Everybody right now is
in a state of shock. I am too.”
Chief Chris T. McKenzie of the Carthage Police
Department said, “This is a small community built on faith, and faith
will get us through.”
State Senator Harris Blake of Moore County said the
nursing home was a pillar of the community.
“I would predict that almost everybody in this area
knew someone who knew someone at that center,” Mr. Blake said. “We
hear about tragedies like this all over the country, and we say, ‘Oh,
that’s bad.’ Until it hits home, you don’t get a full picture."