RALEIGH, N.C. — The police officer credited for ending a deadly shooting rampage at a Carthage nursing home last month said he was just reacting to the situation when he brought down the alleged gunman.
Cpl. Justin Garner was the only police officer on duty in the small town when he responded to calls about a shooting at Pinelake Health and Rehab on Sunday, March 29.
He said Thursday that he called for backup but that when he saw a pickup truck with its window shot out, he realized he had to go inside and search for the gunman.
Garner, one of 11 people shot that day, shot Robert Kenneth Stewart once in the upper chest, bringing an end to the violence. The rampage was over in less than 20 minutes. Seven patients and a nurse died.
Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie has hailed Garner as a hero, saying that if it were not for his quick response, more lives could have been lost.
"It was just a reaction. When I realized something was going on, I knew I had to get in there,” Garner said. "I don't look at it as me being a hero but as me doing my job."
Garner, a police officer for nearly five years, said he ordered the gunman three times to put down his weapon but that, instead, he lowered it toward him.
"Then I fired," he said. "I did what I had to do."
It wasn't until later that night, Garner said, that he was able to begin to process what happened to him.
"When I lay down, it kind of hit me kind of hard. It was pretty emotional with things running through my mind," he said. "I never second-guessed myself, but there was the thought that he tried to kill me. That's a hard thing to realize."
Police charged Stewart, 45, of 2530 Glendon Carthage Road, with eight counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony assault on a law enforcement official. He is at Central Prison in Raleigh, where he awaits an April 13 court appearance.
According to search warrants, Stewart told a nurse treating him following the shooting that he had taken six nerve pills and did not remember what happened.
Police have not offered a motive for the crime but Stewart's estranged wife, who works at the nursing home, said she believes she was the intended target. She was not hurt.
As for Garner and his wife, Stephanie, it's still hard for them to realize the magnitude of the shooting.
"It still hasn't set in," Stephanie Garner said. "It's still unreal to think about it. It's hard to believe something like this would happen."
Garner underwent surgery Tuesday to remove two of three shotgun pellets from his left leg. He is recovering at home and said he expects to return to work in May, if not sooner.
"I'm ready to get back," he said. "I imagine when I start putting that uniform on, I'll be thinking about what happened, but I think I need to get back in there and get to work."