Local News

Police: Gunman's estranged wife worked at nursing home

Posted March 30, 2009
Updated March 31, 2009

— Detectives are investigating whether a gunman accused of killing eight people may have picked a Carthage nursing home as his target because his estranged wife worked there, police said Monday.

Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie said the woman, whom he did not name, worked at the nursing home. He said he believed that the couple was recently separated but that he did not have any other details. He was not sure if the woman was at the nursing home at the time of the shootings.

Police say Robert Stewart, 45, killed seven residents and a nurse at the Pinelake Health and Rehab center and wounded three other people.

The injured included a police officer credited with ending the rampage when he confronted and fired on the gunman, who was also wounded.

Witnesses told police Stewart left some people untouched during the massacre without explanation.

Law enforcement officials said they would release more details at a news conference Monday.

Stewart is in custody, but authorities would not give any details about his injuries or treatment. Authorities searched his home, 2530 Glendon Carthage Road in Carthage, Sunday night.

Suspect had 'violent tendencies'

Ex-wife: 'He'd just get mad and blow up'

Stewart's ex-wife, Sue Griffin, said he had "some violent tendencies" and would throw objects when things didn't go his way.

"I mean, he never really hurt me, hurt me. He'd just get mad and blow up," she said.

Griffin said she believes Stewart had a connection to the nursing home through his estranged wife. Griffin said she thinks the two got back together and that the estranged wife works at the nursing home.

"This is unbelievable," Griffin said. "I don’t know why he’d do something like that. I really don’t. And the people hurt and injured and dead because of him? That is beyond words.”

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 reach her during the past week through her son, mother, sister and grandmother.

Stewart had also been reaching out to family members recently, telling them he had cancer and was preparing for a long trip and to "go away," according to Griffin.

When they were married, he had guns and used them only for hunting, she said.

Stewart started a painting business while they were together, Griffin said. She said she learned recently that he had become overweight and was having trouble working.

Stewart is charged with eight counts of first-degree murder and a charge of felony assault of a law enforcement officer. Authorities offered few other details, allowing only that Stewart was not a patient or an employee at the nursing home and isn't believed to be related to any of the victims.

Officials said the shooting could have been bloodier if Carthage police Cpl. Justin Garner, 25, hadn't wounded Stewart while trading gunfire in a hallway. Garner was wounded in the leg.

"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. "We had an officer, a well-trained officer, who performed his job the way he was supposed to and prevented this from getting even worse than it is now."

Carthage police chief news conference March 29: Carthage police news conference

Remembering the victims

Beverly McNeil said her mother, Pinelake resident Ellery Chisholm, called moments after the gunman stormed into her room and pointed his "deer gun" at her roommate. "They're up here shooting, they're up here shooting," Chisholm frantically told her 14-year-old granddaughter, Tavia, over the phone, McNeil said.

Chisholm told her daughter that she hid her face in her shirt so she couldn't see the man or what she expected him to do, McNeil said. He didn't shoot, but left the room and began shooting down the hallway.

"(The gunman) was just looking at (my mother) and put the gun up to the other lady's head," McNeil said.

The small town about 60 miles southwest of Raleigh in North Carolina's Sandhills region was shocked by the violence.

"I don't know if the emotion entirely has set in," said Police Chief Chris McKenzie, a Carthage native who said nothing in his nearly 20-year law enforcement career compared to Sunday's slaughter. "It's a small community built on faith, and faith will get us through."

Krueger said the victims were Pinelake residents Tessie Garner, 75; Lillian Dunn, 89; Jesse Musser, 88; Bessie Hedrick, 78; John Goldston, 78; Margaret Johnson, 89; Louise De Kler, 98; and nurse Jerry Avant Jr., 39.

Jerry Avant, the father of Jerry Avant Jr., said his only son spent 10 years serving in the Coast Guard before finding his true calling – working with the elderly. Jerry Avant Jr. had just passed his board test to become a registered nurse, his father said.

Jerry Avant said doctors called his son a hero.

“All I heard was just that someone went in there and started shooting,” he said. "(My son) saved a lot of lives before he went down."

Jerry Avant Jr.'s girlfriend, who also worked at the nursing home, found him lying in a pool of blood after the shooting, the senior Avant said.

"He was real smart. I am not just saying that because he was my son. He has always been smart," Jerry Avant said.

Jerry Avant Jr. - Carthage nursing home shooting victim Victim's father: 'He saved a lot of lives'

Tammy Clark's mother was also inside the nursing home when the rampage began.

"To my understanding, he was shooting at the residents and the workers,” Clark said. “He went into the room and shot some of the people right there in their beds."

Clark’s mother wasn't injured.

Friends and family of Pinelake residents and employees started to gather not long after the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Carthage. They were frustrated by the lack of immediate news about who had died, said Lea Chandler, a volunteer with the Moore County chapter of the American Red Cross.

Chandler said she saw two women and their husbands get the news that their mother had been killed.

"They were just crying out, 'Why mama?'" Chandler said. "To see people suffer is hard. To see people suffering, not knowing, trying to find information."

Sky 5 video of nursing home shooting Sky 5 : Scene of Carthage nursing home shooting

Five-star facility closes after attack

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 from the 110-bed facility, including patients with Alzheimer's disease, saying only, "They're safe, which is the primary thing."

Among the items investigators found was a camouflaged-colored rifle or shotgun, which was leaning against the side of a Jeep Cherokee in the parking lot.

Pinelake Health and Rehab was last inspected in May, and the review resulted in an overall five-star – or "much above average" – rating from federal Medicaid officials. A nursing home Web site said the facility opened in 1993 and has 110 beds, including 20 for those with Alzheimer's disease.

Sunday's rampage happened just weeks after a man killed 10 people, including his mother and several other relatives, in the worst mass shooting in Alabama's history on March 10. On March 11, a teen killed 12 people at his former high school in Germany.

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  • motherof2sweeties Mar 30, 2009

    The reason that the crime rate is so much lower in other countries is because criminals have to pay for their actions, unlike the U.S. where death row inmates sit on death row for 30-40 years and die of natural causes before they are even put to death. The phrase "there is no more room on death row" should never be said. They should execute these murderers immediately following trial, not sit in a jail cell while watching their FREE cable, eating their FREE meals, and have FREE room and board. I am tired of my tax money going to take care of people like this. It's not fair! The sad part about it is that most of the people sit on death row with no remorse which makes it 100 times worse. They are just wasting good air!

  • mjspivey Mar 30, 2009

    Pinelake is a wonderful facilty. Pinelakes was a part of our lives for many years. My grandmother spent her last years there and was cared for by caring, Christain people. We were all with my grandmother when she died peacefully at Pinelakes and the staff could not have been more wonderful. They made us feel like we were part of their family. We even asked one of Grandma's nurses to sing at her funeral.
    This is an unbelievable act and my thoughts and prayers go out to all those involved. I know God is rewarding Jerry in Heaven for giving his life to protect his patients. How brave of the deputy to act alone before backup arrived. I wish peace and comfort to all.

  • Garnerwolf1 Mar 30, 2009

    citizen: I'm not searching for utopia. Our incarceration rate is MUCH higher than that of other countries. I'm questioning why this is. Is it because we are more evil than those in other countries? Do other countries just have more criminals roaming the streets? Are we even doing anything wrong? Perhaps it's all the other countries not catching and jailing it's criminals. Think a little. That was the purpose of my first post, to try to get people to think about the issue. One in every 30-something adults in this country is in jail. Why?

  • mwilliams2 Mar 30, 2009

    "What are we doing wrong? Should we end up jailing 1 in 15 adults?! Put a bullet in everyone that commits a crime beyond a traffic ticket and be done with it?"

    Some societies such as Canada and Europe do not have nearly the homicide rate that we do. It would be interesting to know what the difference is and why their homicide rates are so much lower.

  • WRALblows Mar 30, 2009

    "What are we doing wrong? Should we end up jailing 1 in 15 adults?! Put a bullet in everyone that commits a crime beyond a traffic ticket and be done with it?"

    Ya because that worked so well for the Third Reich. Get a grip. Bad people exist and humans are unpredictable. The Utopian control you search for does not exist, nor will it ever.

  • WRALblows Mar 30, 2009

    "I hope this guy tells why he did it"

    There's no rational cause for his actions so there cannot be any meaningful explanation. He went nuts.

  • WRALblows Mar 30, 2009

    "Maybe people with violent tendencies shouldn't be allowed to have guns?"

    You must verify these violent tendencies through criminal or mental health records which do not exist in the majority of these cases. That's one of the major problems with current gun control laws.

    If you want to get a loan for a car the banks often want to check personal or family references. But to buy a firearm a check for a non-existent record is all that's required. It doesn't even matter if the perpetrators told six people they're mad at the world and going to buy a gun. They gunsmith has no legal grounds to stop the sale.

  • pulstar40 Mar 30, 2009

    Everytime I hear of this story, it hurts to the core. Shooting defenseless people in their beds. And even the survivors will spend the rest of their lives tormented because this animal took it upon himself to make others suffer. My sincerest sympathy to all the victim's families, and an extra hug to family of the gentleman nurse who saved so many and lost his life. I am grateful that the police officer who was shot was not seriously injured it appears, and I pray for a speedy recovery for him.

  • TheLibertine Mar 30, 2009

    Why didn't they just kill this guy when they had the opportunity? Now we get to pay for his 3 hots and a cot, his attorneys, and all the peripherals for who knows how many years. He's only 45 so this could drag out for quite some time. A mad dog would get put down -- why not a mad man?

  • fourfivesix Mar 30, 2009

    is wral just now making this connection b/w his estranged wife and the choice of location? the other news stations figured that out yesterday. way to be on top of it!

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