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Officer subdued nursing home shooter

The only officer on duty Sunday morning in tiny Carthage hunted nursing home's halls for killer.

By Jay Price
jay.price@newsobserver.com

CARTHAGE When the dispatch call came just after 10 a.m. – a man shooting inside the nursing home on Pinehurst Avenue – it went to Officer Justin Garner.

It couldn't have gone to anyone else: Garner, 25, was the only officer on duty Sunday morning.

Carthage, the Moore County seat about 90 miles east of Charlotte, is not a place where anyone expects violence on Sunday mornings, least of all a shooting rampage that would leave eight dead, seven of them residents.

When he jumped out of his patrol car at Pinelake Health and Rehab, Garner knew he couldn't wait for backup.

He pulled his .40-caliber Glock handgun and walked into the nursing home, a convoluted building the size of a small shopping center.

Police said the man who stalked the halls, killing seven residents and a staff member, was Robert Kenneth Stewart, 45, of Moore County. Stewart's estranged wife worked in the nursing home, said Carthage police Chief Chris McKenzie.

Stewart, a house painter with a trail of lawsuits for shoddy work and a tangled marriage history, was charged Sunday with eight counts of first-degree murder.

McKenzie, who gave basic details about the incident during a Monday morning news conference, declined to provide details of the carnage, citing the ongoing investigation.

But McKenzie went to the nursing home and saw what Garner had walked past as he hunted the shooter.

“Unimaginable,” McKenzie said. “Horrific. Everything that you can possibly imagine that's bad in this world.”

Witnesses said two people were shot in their wheelchairs and others in their beds.

“They didn't have a chance,” said Willie Hill, former police chief of nearby Robbins. His mother, Blanche Hill lives at Pinelake but was unharmed.

Garner, who was born and raised in the Carthage area, is young but has been on the town's police force for more than four years. He was named officer of the year. Like the other 17 members of the force, he had been trained not to wait for backup if there was a shooter in a building with a large number of potential victims.

“If we wait, folks are going to die,” McKenzie said.

So, Garner kept moving.

Eventually, in a hallway deep in the building, McKenzie said, Garner confronted a hulking man with a gun. Both fired.

Garner was hit in the left leg by three pellets.

The other man went down, wounded in the upper chest.

It was 10:15 a.m.

A SWAT team was on the way, but Garner had stopped the killing.

“I don't know how you can classify yesterday as anything but heroic,” McKenzie said. “Absolutely nothing other than that. If that's not heroism, I don't know what is.”

A troubled history

McKenzie said it was unclear whether Stewart's wife was in the building at the time of the shootings. A neighbor of the wife's parents identified her as Wanda Luck.

According to court records, Stewart and Luck divorced in 1986, and Stewart had married another woman. In 2002, he divorced that wife. In documents filed the same year, after a client sued him, Stewart said he was supporting his 55-year-old mother, a girlfriend and the girlfriend's two children.

Other court records show Stewart filed for bankruptcy in 2002 in federal court in Greensboro.

Sandra Anderlik and her husband, of Wagram, sued Stewart in 2001 for failing to complete a paint job inside their home. Sandra Anderlik said they had twice caught him trying to cheat them with cheap paint. She said he almost never spoke.

“I don't know how to put this, but his demeanor was just strange,” Anderlik said.

Stewart was sued by at least two other customers and by a local newspaper for not paying an advertising bill. In one court document, he listed his mobile home's value at $600 and his pickup's value at $500.

Stewart's home is a faded doublewide with a homemade addition situated on the edge of a field half a mile up a dirt road north of Carthage.

Investigators searched it Sunday, but by Monday afternoon, it was deserted. A metal shed had been gutted by a recent fire. Inside, charred beyond use, was equipment a painter would use, including air compressors.

A dark-hued plastic rain barrel in the yard had been perforated by hundreds of shotgun pellets and some larger-caliber ammunition.

Leaning against the barrel was a board bearing a hand-drawn target – a sheet of paper with a dot drawn in the center. A shotgun blast had hit almost squarely on target.

McKenzie said more than one gun had been recovered after shootings at the nursing home, but he declined to say how many or what kind.

In 2006, Stewart received permits from the Moore County Sheriff's Office to buy two handguns.

Witness shot in parking lot

Michael Cotten, a witness to the shooting Sunday, said that as he drove into the nursing home's parking lot to see his aunt, a massive man leveled a rifle or shotgun at him and fired three shots into his pickup. One struck him on the back.

Cotten fled into the Pinelake building and hid in a room in the back of the nursing home. He listened to the sounds of random gunfire until someone yelled that police had captured the shooter.

As he walked through the lobby, Cotten said he saw Stewart handcuffed, lying face down on the floor, surrounded by heavily armed law officers. On the floor just out of Stewart's reach were a long gun and a pistol.

District Attorney Maureen Krueger said Monday in that investigators had worked all night trying to piece together what had happened.

The killings were not random, Krueger said, and the only suspect was in custody, she said. But one thing that will be hard to determine is the reason for the killings, Krueger said.

“When can one look into the heart and mind of another person and truly know what they think?” she asked.

Officer Garner was resting at home Monday with his wife. Through McKenzie, he said that he did not want to be interviewed by the swarm of journalists that had descended on the Sandhills town just north of Pinehurst.

He'll need minor outpatient surgery, and it's unclear when he'll return to duty.

“He can take as long as he wants, as far as I'm concerned,” McKenzie said. Ted Richardson of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

Ted Richardson of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.
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