Local News

Police: Gunman's estranged wife worked at nursing home

Posted March 30, 2009 5:01 a.m. EDT
Updated March 31, 2009 1:45 p.m. EDT

— 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.

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."

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.

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."

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.