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Defense: Stewart doesn't remember nursing home shooting

Robert Kenneth Stewart faces eight counts of first-degree murder in the March 29, 2009, shooting deaths of eight people at a Carthage nursing home.

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CARTHAGE, N.C. — The man accused of killing eight people and wounding three others during a shooting rampage at a Carthage nursing home two years ago was under the influence of the sleep-aid Ambien and other drugs and was unaware of his actions, a defense attorney said Monday.

Attorney Jonathan Megerian said during opening statements that Robert Kenneth Stewart was deeply depressed and attempted to see a doctor two days before the March 29, 2009, shooting at the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center. The doctor wasn't there, but Stewart saw a nurse who prescribed Lexapro and Xanax, two anti-depressants that did not sit well with him. 

The night of March 27, 2009, Stewart went to his aunt's house because he feared he was going to hurt someone, Megerian said. The day before the shooting, Stewart was feeling better but became agitated that night because of the anti-depressants he was taking. 

Megerian said Stewart then took an extreme amount of Ambien, a drug that he had been taking for two years. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Ambien can put the user in a hypnotic state and cause people to "do an activity that you are not aware that you're doing," Megerian said. Tests run on Stewart's blood following the shooting showed he had 12 times the therapeutic dose of Ambien in his system, Megerian said.

Megerian said Stewart's problems with the anti-depressants prompted him to overdose on Ambien.

"Without Friday, March 27, we would not have had Sunday, March 29," Megerian said. 

Stewart admitted in open court earlier this month that he killed seven patients and a nurse at the center. Megerian said Stewart doesn't recall what happened the day of the shooting and can't be held legally responsible for his actions.

"Robert Stewart does not remember what happened on March 29, 2009, and he has never been able to tell anyone about it," Megerian said.

Moore County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Bartholomew said Stewart entered Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center that day "with a specific reason" – to chase down his estranged wife, Wanda Stewart, who worked there. She said Robert Stewart had called his Wanda Stewart's parents repeatedly prior to the shooting but got no answer. 

“This was not a random act,” Bartholomew said. “When Wanda wouldn’t go to the defendant, the defendant went to her.”

Bartholomew said Stewart brought four guns and a bag of ammunition with the intent of creating mass casualties. 

"He didn't stop after he shot up his wife's car. Instead, he entered the facility and reloaded after every three shots," Bartholomew said. 

Michael Cotton, who was going to visit his great aunt, testified Monday that he was shot while driving in the center's parking lot. He said the gunshot wound to his left shoulder burned. 

After being shot, Cotton said he went inside to warn residents.  Cotton hid in a bathroom and called 911 as he heard more shooting.

"I didn't know how bad I was hit, so I just decided to go in and try to alert the people," Cotton said. "When I told them there was a man with a gun coming in, they kind of looked at me like, 'This guy's crazy.'"

Michael Gillis and his family were inside visiting his grandmother when they heard gunfire. Gillis testified Monday that he told his family to hide in the bathroom and his oldest son to guard the door while he went into the hallway. He saw his grandmother's nurse, Jerry Avant Jr., 39, on the floor bleeding. 

Gillis said he asked Avant what he could do to help, to which Avant replied, "Nothing. I'm going to die." 

"I said to Jerry, 'No, you're not. We're not going to let that happen,'" Gillis said. 

As the rampage continued, Gillis said, his family could hear a man shot in the room next door, "whimpering as he took his last breath." 

Carthage police officer Justin Garner ended the massacre when he shot Robert Stewart in the chest. Garner was wounded in the rampage.

In addition to Avant, patients Louise De Kler, 98, Tessie Garner, 75, Lillian Dunn, 89, Jesse Musser, 88, Bessie Hedrick, 78, John Goldston, 78, and Margaret Johnson, 89, also died in the attacks. (Read more about the victims.)

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The final juror was seated last week after 750 people were summoned for jury selection in nearby Stanly County. The process took three weeks, and jurors were chosen in Stanly County because of extensive pre-trial publicity in the case.

The trial, which will be held in Moore County, is expected to last four to six weeks. Jurors will be bused in each day.


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