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Defense: Stewart doesn't remember nursing home shooting

Posted August 1, 2011
Updated August 9, 2011

— The man accused of killing eight people and wounding three others during a shooting rampage at a Carthage nursing home two years ago was under the influence of the sleep-aid Ambien and other drugs and was unaware of his actions, a defense attorney said Monday.

Attorney Jonathan Megerian said during opening statements that Robert Kenneth Stewart was deeply depressed and attempted to see a doctor two days before the March 29, 2009, shooting at the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center. The doctor wasn't there, but Stewart saw a nurse who prescribed Lexapro and Xanax, two anti-depressants that did not sit well with him. 

The night of March 27, 2009, Stewart went to his aunt's house because he feared he was going to hurt someone, Megerian said. The day before the shooting, Stewart was feeling better but became agitated that night because of the anti-depressants he was taking. 

Megerian said Stewart then took an extreme amount of Ambien, a drug that he had been taking for two years. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Ambien can put the user in a hypnotic state and cause people to "do an activity that you are not aware that you're doing," Megerian said. Tests run on Stewart's blood following the shooting showed he had 12 times the therapeutic dose of Ambien in his system, Megerian said.

Megerian said Stewart's problems with the anti-depressants prompted him to overdose on Ambien.

"Without Friday, March 27, we would not have had Sunday, March 29," Megerian said. 

Stewart admitted in open court earlier this month that he killed seven patients and a nurse at the center. Megerian said Stewart doesn't recall what happened the day of the shooting and can't be held legally responsible for his actions.

"Robert Stewart does not remember what happened on March 29, 2009, and he has never been able to tell anyone about it," Megerian said.

Robert Kenneth Stewart Trial begins in nursing home shooting

Moore County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Bartholomew said Stewart entered Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center that day "with a specific reason" – to chase down his estranged wife, Wanda Stewart, who worked there. She said Robert Stewart had called his Wanda Stewart's parents repeatedly prior to the shooting but got no answer. 

“This was not a random act,” Bartholomew said. “When Wanda wouldn’t go to the defendant, the defendant went to her.”

Bartholomew said Stewart brought four guns and a bag of ammunition with the intent of creating mass casualties. 

"He didn't stop after he shot up his wife's car. Instead, he entered the facility and reloaded after every three shots," Bartholomew said. 

Michael Cotton, who was going to visit his great aunt, testified Monday that he was shot while driving in the center's parking lot. He said the gunshot wound to his left shoulder burned. 

After being shot, Cotton said he went inside to warn residents.  Cotton hid in a bathroom and called 911 as he heard more shooting.

"I didn't know how bad I was hit, so I just decided to go in and try to alert the people," Cotton said. "When I told them there was a man with a gun coming in, they kind of looked at me like, 'This guy's crazy.'"

Michael Gillis and his family were inside visiting his grandmother when they heard gunfire. Gillis testified Monday that he told his family to hide in the bathroom and his oldest son to guard the door while he went into the hallway. He saw his grandmother's nurse, Jerry Avant Jr., 39, on the floor bleeding. 

Gillis said he asked Avant what he could do to help, to which Avant replied, "Nothing. I'm going to die." 

"I said to Jerry, 'No, you're not. We're not going to let that happen,'" Gillis said. 

As the rampage continued, Gillis said, his family could hear a man shot in the room next door, "whimpering as he took his last breath." 

Carthage police officer Justin Garner ended the massacre when he shot Robert Stewart in the chest. Garner was wounded in the rampage.

In addition to Avant, patients Louise De Kler, 98, Tessie Garner, 75, Lillian Dunn, 89, Jesse Musser, 88, Bessie Hedrick, 78, John Goldston, 78, and Margaret Johnson, 89, also died in the attacks. (Read more about the victims.)

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The final juror was seated last week after 750 people were summoned for jury selection in nearby Stanly County. The process took three weeks, and jurors were chosen in Stanly County because of extensive pre-trial publicity in the case.

The trial, which will be held in Moore County, is expected to last four to six weeks. Jurors will be bused in each day.


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  • barbstillkickin Aug 2, 2011

    Of course he does not remember KILLING ALL THOSE POOR FOLKS WHO JUST HAPPENED TO BE IN HIS WAY. Already starting with the crazy plea. I wonder if he was so messed up on his drugs LOL how could he be so smart to load his gun and drive to the place and then shoot anyone who got in his way.Sounds pretty alert to me.

  • hmmmmm Aug 2, 2011

    He is a domestic abuser, his wife dared to leave him. He threatened violence at her work, enough so that she knew it was a credible threat and made them aware of it; at which point they put her in a locked ward, where he couldn't get to her, despite the fact that she was not trained to be there. He then had the mental capacity to gather his guns and ammo, drive to HER WORK, shoot up HER CAR, then proceed into HER WORK, looking for HER, while shooting anyone who got in the way. HE...DOESN'T...REMEMBER...WAAA!!! Domestic abusers never accept the blame, it is always that they did it because of something, alcohol, drugs, bad childhood, and especially...IF SHE JUST HADN'T SAID/DONE THAT "HE WOULDN'T HAVE GOTTEN SO MAD".
    It's all good, I hope I get picked for jury duty, I'm gonna forget putting my hand on the bible saying I promise to be fair & impartial, because I took my thyroid medication every morning. After all, that affects my hormones...

  • skyyekatfromafar Aug 2, 2011

    chevybelair57sd--Funny, I was thinking the exact same thing.

  • chevybelair57sd Aug 2, 2011

    Anybody who can operate a car, guns and ammo, and why he went is not in a daze, perhaps a shot in the arm will refresh his memory

  • hunt36 Aug 2, 2011


  • lawncare5 Aug 2, 2011

    His attorneys are only taking advantage of the legal limits that our can't we all get along/liberal feel-good pro civil rights/he didn't mean to do it laws let them do.

  • kbird Aug 2, 2011

    This man obviously has no remorse for what her has done. If I had done this, under the influence or not, I would be so devestated and ashamed the state wouldn't have to be the one to take my life. His only concern seems to be saving himself. What a disgraceful human and a total waste of oxygen!!!

  • johnnybgood Aug 2, 2011

    ...So that means he was asleep when he drove to nursing home.

  • ConcernedNCC Aug 2, 2011

    Considering his wife warned her employers that he might come to kill her, and he did, his defense doesn't mean much.

  • warbirdlover Aug 2, 2011

    Dang, I take Ambiem once in a while. (I'm also a big fellow and know that large people can stand higher doses of medicine without side effects) All it does to me is make me want sleep. It takes all my effort to get out of bed, the next morning. If I took 12X the doseage, I would be "Rip Van Winkle" and would miss Kanoodling with my beautiful wife. I think Stewart in full of "Horse Dung" If he abused the drugs, he is still 100% guilty and should get the needle.