State News

Accused gunman's ex-wife had awful feeling he was nursing home shooter

Posted August 16, 2011

— When Robert Stewart's ex-wife wife heard there was a gunman at her workplace on March 29, 2009, she had an awful feeling it was him.

After dramatic delays that involved a failed suicide attempt, Wanda Neal took the witness stand Tuesday in Stewart's trial for killing of eight people at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Moore County.

Neal told the court she overdosed on 60 prescription pills, including the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, and alcohol on July 31, the night before the trial began, and was hospitalized until last week. Superior Court Judge James Webb ruled Monday that lawyers could refer to her recent suicide attempt during her testimony.

Prosecutors say Stewart was searching for her when he shot and killed seven patients and a nurse at the nursing home. He is charged with eight counts of murder and could face the death penalty if convicted.

His lawyers don't deny he pulled the trigger, but say he wasn't responsible for his actions because of depression and an overdose of prescription drugs, which left him in a hypnotic state.

Neal was working in the locked Alzheimer's unit at Pinelake the day of the shooting. She said people began calling her co-workers' cellphones and telling them someone was inside the building with a gun.

"They were telling us there was a bearded man out there in the hallway who had been shooting," Neal said.

Neal said she had an awful feeling it was Stewart.

The nurses put the patients in the TV room, placed a chair against the main door to the room and put the blinds down, Neal said. 

Neal said she went to the nearest bathroom and shut the door.

"I just had the funniest feeling it was him, and I wanted to get out there. I wanted to get out there in that hall to see my people, make sure they were alright," Neal said of patients outside of the unit.

Neal said she never thought Stewart would do something like that. 

"He always talked against hurting old people and children. If I thought he would have done it, I would never have gone back into Pinelake," Neal said. 

The shootings ended when a Carthage police officer shot Stewart in the shoulder.

When Neal came out of the unit, she saw Stewart. 

"I looked around the corner and saw that it was him. He was lying on the floor," she said.

That night, Neal went to the mobile home she used to share with Stewart. She found beer cans and glass in the hallway and one of the couple's wedding photos on the floor.

She called the police after finding a last will and testament in Stewart's sock drawer and pills and ammunition on the table.

Since the shootings, Neal said, she has had nightmares. She said she attempted suicide because "everything had built up." 

"I know a lot of of family members hold everything against me. I can understand that," Neal said. 

Defense attorney Jonathan Megerian pointed out that Neal was given Xanax and the anti-depressant Lexapro, the same medications Stewart was taking before the shootings. 

"You attempted to kill yourself when you had simply been provided a bunch of prescription medications," Megerian said. "In fact, what needed to happen was you needed to be hospitalized, as you have been. That helped you, the pills didn't."

stewart trial Stewart's ex-wife tells of rocky marriage

Marriage was 'rocky'

Neal said she met Stewart at an Aberdeen rolling-skating rink when she was 14, and their relationship was marked by episodes of jealousy and violence.

“Me and some friends of mine were talking and having a good time (at a high school dance). Robert got mad and walked to his truck,” she said. “He smacked me.”

At other times, Stewart threatened men whom Neal befriended, including beating up a student at Sandhills Community College. Neal said that, when Stewart would get angry he would give her a certain look, which left her afraid. 

“Sometimes it was good. Sometimes it was bad. It was rocky,” Neal said of her marriage to Stewart. “I would keep going back home to Mommy and Daddy. Robert would call me back, crying.”

They divorced after less than two years together in the 1980s, and then she and Stewart both remarried. She didn't see him for more than a decade, but they reconnected after Stewart's father died in 2001 and then remarried in June 2002.

"It was good and bad," she said of their second marriage. "We had some good times.”

During the bad times, Stewart lost his painting business and filed for bankruptcy. After the filing, Neal said Stewart pushed her down some steps and pulled a gun on her. No one was hurt in the incident, she said.

Neal said she started working at Pinelake to support the couple and her three children from a previous marriage. Stewart had poor health, including back pain, insomnia and breathing difficulties, and he was on disability, she said. 

In the middle of March 2009, she said, she left Stewart again. Neal said she didn't leave sooner because she was "tired of being a failure."

"The past marriages and everything – I wanted it to work. I guess I felt like I deserved what I was getting, because I went back, because I left the first time. I wanted to make it work," she said. 


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  • DaisyMae Aug 17, 2011

    I need to clarify something. I do not fault anyone for working that has had any kind of mental problem. I applaud them that they can overcome such a horrible problem to have to deal with. In fact all of us can take a lesson from anyone that has been able to beat the problem. As for Ms. Neal, I feel for this lady....she is a victim of a horrible situation. My concern was she herself admitted that she thought it was her husband doing the shooting. I was merely wondering if she had conveyed that type of history to her employer for her protection as well as the facility. Please folks, we are all just talking and voicing our opinions. All of us heard the same facts and we all have different interpretations.

  • Garden1 Aug 17, 2011

    Hello Warbirdlover....I have a right to voice my opinion just like you do. Think about it. Whatever our beliefs, opinions etc....they can be taken as being judgemental....including yours. Have a nice day.

  • sophiemom Aug 17, 2011

    A fair number of people with mental health issues, such as depression, take care of "sweet elderly people" and not so sweet patients. Believe it or not, there are psychiatrists and other physicians out there who are on medication for mental health issues who care for us. That does not mean that they are incapable of doing a good job.

  • warbirdlover Aug 17, 2011

    Gardina - Not all elderly people are sweet and innocent, some are just mean and beligerant. Who are to say what kind of nurse she was and that she was over medicated. Lots of people take prescriptions that their Dr. gives them and preform their job duties perfectly. Until you see her medical records and talk to her Dr, employer & the people she took care of, you have no right to judge this person.

  • skyyekatfromafar Aug 17, 2011

    I'm with Proud Wife and Mother on this one--Neal went to the mobile home where they had lived together . . and found beer cans in the hall as well as shattered glass, etc. She went there after the fact (the rampage)?? Wasn't that mobile treated as a crime scene? Taped off and locked up?? It appears (to me) there are some loose ends here and hopefully not so many as to help the defense find a door of escape for the defendant.

    There are numerous posts re; the reasons one would be in, stay in an abusive relationship. As a former counselor for a women's shelter within this state I have to say, "it takes all kinds" and no one is immune to abuse. For those unfortunate enough to be in domestic situations it is and can be a combination of factors. I'm not siding with, or justifying their decisions. Domestic situations consist of at least two people and until one of them (the vic) refuses to further be a part of it, it will continue.

  • lizlizardrn Aug 16, 2011

    You are such narrow minded critical. She never thought he would do such a thing...if anything, she thought he would kill her! So judgmental you all must be such perfect people!!!

  • DaisyMae Aug 16, 2011

    What is a person with a history of mental health issues (Wanda Neal) doing taking care of sweet innocent elderly people? Can you imagine your sweet mother or grandmother etc in the hands of a person that is over-medicated? If she is taking the same medicine that her crazy husband is taking and it is suppose to have the same side effects, whose to say she would not have given the wrong med to a patient or hurt a patient. I want justice for those elderly people. I hope the families do not back down. Hope the nursing home has good insurance!

  • VT1994Hokie Aug 16, 2011

    She surely didn't help much by pulling her stunt either. I guess both are just dysfuntional people. I will be glad when he is sentenced. A total waste. She needs major mental assistance.

  • jrfergerson Aug 16, 2011

    So many women and girls don't realize what they are getting into when they come across a man that is controlling and abusive. But for those who do realize life with this kind of man is not worth the price you have to pay in the end. Mama told me many many years ago, "honey you take the first lick of a man - you will take the second - so walk away from that type" she was right in more ways than one. For you young girls as soon as the first harsh word is spoken - walk away from that relationship - I will never be worth what you will face if you stay thinking it will change. It never will. Life is too short to bear the bruises - So think of it like this - do you love the one abusing you more then you love the one being abused. The sooner you figure that one out the easier it will be to walk away.

  • annemarek Aug 16, 2011

    Many women stay with abusive me and IQ has nothing to do with it. She has to know that there is life after all of this. As for the murderer , let the law do what it has to. I prefer execution.