Local News

Families claim Carthage nursing home knew of potential attack

Posted July 11, 2011 12:41 p.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2011 6:58 p.m. EDT

— Administrators at a Carthage nursing home where eight people were killed in a shooting rampage knew there was a threat but did nothing to secure the facility, according to a civil lawsuit filed against the nursing home on behalf of the families of four people killed during the March 29, 2009, shooting.

Jury selection began Monday in the trial of Robert Kenneth Stewart who authorities say shot and killed eight people and wounded three others, including a police officer, at Pinelake Health and Rehab.

Stewart's estranged wife, Wanda Stewart, worked at the facility as a nursing assistant. She told WRAL News that she thinks he was gunning for her because she had left him weeks before the shooting.

According to the civil suit filed by the estates of Louise DeKler, John Goldston, Margaret Johnson and Lillian Dunn, Wanda Stewart told Pinelake Health administrators that "she believed an attack by Robert Stewart upon her was imminent, and could likely occur on the date of the incident," while she was working.

The lawsuit adds that Wanda Stewart made the facility aware that she believed Robert Stewart might attempt to kill or seriously injure her while noting that he had had firearms and was in an "unstable mental state or mentally ill."

"We're very confident that she told a number of employees that her husband had pulled a gun on her the week before," said attorney Mark McGrath, who is representing the families in the lawsuit. 

On the day of the attack, Wanda Stewart was assigned to the Alzheimer's special care unit, despite the fact that it was not her usual assignment and that she did not possess the specialized training required of those working in the units as required by law, according to the lawsuit.

Unlike the rest of the facility, the Alzheimer’s unit is locked 24 hours a day and is accessible only by entering a passcode on an electrical access key panel. The rest of the facility was left "unlocked an readily accessible by anyone desiring to enter the facility," according to the lawsuit.

"We don't think it is any coincidence that on this particular date she was working in the locked Alzheimer's unit, which was not her usual station," McGrath said. 

Robert Stewart arrived at the facility shortly before 10 a.m. and shot visitor Michael Lee Cotten in the parking lot, the lawsuit claims. Cotten, who was injured in his left shoulder, escaped and ran inside the facility to warn residents and staff of the gunman. Robert Stewart stayed outside and fired several shots at his estranged wife's vehicle, breaking two windows.

Despite the gunshots in the parking lot and Cotten's warning, the lawsuit alleges that the nursing home "failed to take any action to secure the facility or protect residents" from the threat posed by Robert Stewart.

The shooting rampage went on for four minutes, before Carthage police officer, Justin Garner, shot Stewart in the chest, according to authorities.

The lawsuit claims Pinelake Health and Rehab was negligent, saying administrators did not take proper safety measures to protect residents from a foreseeable attack.

Wanda Stewart is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which claims she was negligent for not warning residents and their families of the threat posed by her estranged husband, among other things.

The lawsuit, which was filed March 18, seeks $10,000 in damages to cover pain and suffering, medical and funeral expenses and further damages.

Administrators at Pinelake would not comment Monday citing pending litigation. 

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Robert Stewart.

About 750 citizens from Stanly County were summoned to appear at the courthouse in Albemarle on Monday for jury selection, which could take up to four weeks. Superior Court Judge James Webb ruled that potential jurors would come from Stanly and not Moore County because of the extensive coverage the shootings received.

The trial itself will be held in Moore County.