CARTHAGE, N.C. (AP) – The gunman suspected of slaying eight people at a North Carolina nursing home was stopped by a single shot to the chest fired by a decorated police officer responding to a 911 call.
Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie said Monday that police are still working to uncover the motives of 45-year-old Robert Stewart for a rampage in the Pinelake Health and Rehab center on Sunday that claimed the lives of seven residents – most in their late 80s – and a nurse who cared for them.
It ended when 25-year-old Officer Justin Garner wounded Stewart in a hallway. Garner was wounded in the leg and is expected to return to the force after he recovers.
Stewart barged into a North Carolina nursing home Sunday morning and started “shooting everything,” going room-to-room in a terrifying rampage. Authorities said Stewart also wounded three others, including the Carthage police officer who confronted him. Officials said the massacre could have been bloodier if the officer had not managed to subdue Stewart.
“He acted in nothing short of a heroic way today, and but for his actions, we certainly could have had a worse tragedy,” said Moore County District Attorney Maureen Krueger.
By late Sunday afternoon, Krueger had charged Stewart of Moore County, with eight counts of first-degree murder and a single charge of felony assault of a law enforcement officer. Authorities said they would release more information at a news conference Monday morning.
“I don’t know if the emotion entirely has set in,” Police Chief Chris McKenzie said, a Carthage native who said nothing in his nearly 20-year law enforcement career compared to Sunday’s slaughter.
While authorities declined to comment on a possible motive, Stewart’s ex-wife said he had been reaching out recently to family members, telling them he had cancer and was preparing for a long trip and to “go away.” Sue Griffin said she was married to Stewart for 15 years, and while they hadn’t spoken since divorcing in 2001, he had been trying to call her during the past week through her son, mother, sister and grandmother.
“He did have some violent tendencies from time to time,” Griffin said. “I wouldn’t put it past him. I hate to say it, but it is true.”
Authorities said Stewart began his rampage around 10 a.m. at Pinelake Health and Rehab in the North Carolina Sandhills about 60 miles southwest of Raleigh, firing shots inside and outside the home.
“He just comes in and just starts shooting everything around,” said Sen. Harris Blake, of Moore County, relating the story told by sheriff’s officials.
Garner was wounded in his leg, and police said Stewart wounded two others. One person remained hospitalized Sunday night at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in nearby Pinehurst, and police would only say Stewart was in the custody of the Moore County Sheriff.
Krueger said the victims were 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, whose age wasn’t immediately available.
The facility was closed after the attack as authorities worked to gather evidence inside and out. Krueger declined to say if authorities had moved the surviving residents, including patients with Alzheimer’s disease, saying only, “They’re safe, which is the primary thing.”
Carthage police, Moore County sheriff’s deputies and the State Bureau of Investigation conducted a search Sunday afternoon of the nursing home and its parking lot, where the windows of at least two cars were shattered and towed by authorities. Among the items they found was a camouflaged-colored rifle or shotgun, which was leaning against the side of a Jeep Cherokee.
Court records said Stewart is not scheduled to appear in court until next week on eight counts of first-degree murder and a charge of felony assault of a law enforcement officer.