Local News

Nursing home's 'hero' laid to rest

Posted April 2, 2009 12:04 p.m. EDT
Updated April 2, 2009 6:55 p.m. EDT

— Jerry Avant Jr., a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard who was killed in a shooting rampage Sunday at a Carthage nursing home, was laid to rest Thursday afternoon in his hometown of Rockingham.

Doctors said the 39-year-old was shot more than two dozen times while trying to shield others from a gunman who barged into Pinelake Health and Rehab and shot 10 other people, including seven patients who also died.

In a letter Thursday, the commandant of the Coast Guard described Avant as kind of a guardian angel – "one who is willing to protect the weak, defend the frail and save those in peril."

"On that fateful day, he was a true hero as he willingly sacrificed his own life so that others may live," the letter stated.

Avant, a 1988 graduate of Richmond Senior High School, left the Coast Guard to become a nurse as a way to give back to others.

Donald Daniel, a pastor at Freedom Baptist Church, remembered Avant as quiet, but he said something he did each week spoke volumes.

"He'd smile, or sometimes something would be said, and he would say, 'I really liked that,'" Daniel said. "And he didn't know, but I really liked that, because it showed me he was listening."

He was engaged to be married to his girlfriend of five years, Jill DeGarmo, a medical technician who also works at Pinelake.

DeGarmo said she was in a room with patients when the shooting began. She rushed out to see Avant as soon as the firing stopped.

"His biggest concern was praying," DeGarmo said Monday. "He wanted me to pray with him, and he wanted to get his last moments in with God."

Funerals of three other victims – Lillian Dunn, 89, Bessie Hedrick, 78, and Margaret Johnson, 89 – were also Thursday.

Dunn, a retired textile mill worker, was buried at the cemetery at Pine Mountain Friends Church in Carthage. Hedrick was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Siler City following a funeral at First Baptist Church.

Johnson, a homemaker, was buried at Saplin Ridge United Methodist Cemetery in Siler City following a funeral service at Smith & Buckner Funeral Home.

Jesse Musser, 88, a fifth victim of Sunday's massacre, will be buried Friday. Funeral arrangements were pending for two other victims – Louise De Kler, 98, and John Goldston, 78.

Tessie Garner, 75, the eighth victim, was laid to rest in Robbins on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Robert Kenneth Stewart, the suspect in the shootings, was being held Thursday at Central Prison in Raleigh on eight counts of first-degree murder and a charge of felony assault on a law enforcement officer.

Police said Stewart also shot Officer Justin Garner, the only police officer at Pinelake Sunday morning, in the leg before Garner shot Stewart once in the upper chest, bringing the violence to an end.

"What do you say after a tragedy like Sunday? And what happened is a tragedy," Daniel said Thursday. "But I do know that good can come out of it."

In the end, however, words were not much needed. A fiancée's simple gesture of placing a ring on the finger of her husband-to-be and a weeping mother placing her hand on a flag-draped coffin spoke much louder than words.