Local News

Witnesses recount chaos of nursing home shooting

Posted August 2, 2011 11:39 a.m. EDT
Updated August 9, 2011 3:59 p.m. EDT

— Employees and visitors of a Carthage nursing home on Tuesday recounted a shooting rampage at the facility two years ago that left eight people dead and three others wounded.

Robert Kenneth Stewart is charged with eight counts of murder in the March 29, 2009, shooting at Pinelake Health and Rehab. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Brenda Maness, whose late mother lived at Pinelake, testified that she was visiting the center the morning of the shooting when an urgent announcement came over the public-address system.

"We heard Jerry screaming in the intercom, 'Lockdown!'" Maness said, referring to nurse Jerry Avant, who was killed in the shooting rampage. "He was frantic."

Maness said she heard "a loud boom" almost at the same time the announcement was made.

Nursing assistant Denise McLeod was working in the Alzheimer's unit at Pinelake that morning and helped gathered the patients into a room that she and others barricaded by jamming a chair against the door.

"They said it was a big man out there with a beard. He was shooting at people out there,” McLeod recalled.

Stewart's estranged wife, Wanda, also was working in the Alzheimer's unit that day, McLeod testified, and she immediately knew the identity of the gunman.

"Denise, I think that's my husband," McLeod said Wanda Stewart whispered to her.

"I asked her, 'Why would he want to come up here and shoot everyone?'” McLeod said. “She said because she had left him. She was upset.”

Moore County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Bartholomew told jurors in her opening statement Monday that Robert Stewart entered Pinelake that day "with a specific reason" – to chase down Wanda Stewart. She said he brought four guns and a bag of ammunition with the intent of creating mass casualties.

Robert Stewart admitted during a court hearing last month that he killed Avant and seven Pinelake patients, but defense attorney Jonathan Megerian said Stewart doesn't recall what happened the day of the shooting and can't be held legally responsible for his actions.

Megerian said in his opening statement Monday that Robert Stewart had overdosed on the sleeping-aid Ambien the night before the shootings and was taking anti-depressants at the time.

Megerian cited a U.S. Food and Drug Administration report that Ambien can put someone in a hypnotic state and cause people to "do an activity that you are not aware that you're doing." Tests run after the shooting showed that Robert Stewart had 12 times the therapeutic dose of Ambien in his system, his attorney said.

Robert Stewart quietly listened to testimony Tuesday dressed in a dark blazer, white shirt and pants.

Wilean Fletcher, a former nursing assistant at Pinelake, called the shooting rampage "the most scariest day of my life."

Fletcher testified that she heard a commotion in the center but didn't hear the announcement clearly. A few minutes later, she said, she was in a hallway with Avant when Robert Stewart aimed a shotgun at them.

She said she ran to the laundry room to hide while Avant ran to Pinelake's back entrance.

"I immediately ran behind the washing machine, and I heard a gunshot," she said. "It seemed like forever to me (as I hid)."

Nursing assistant Pamela Johnson, sometimes tearing up at the memory, testified that she and other workers ran down the hallways, pushing people into rooms for protection.

"He was getting closer and closer and closer. He was right upon us," Johnson said.

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

After hearing the all-clear announcement, Fletcher said, she went to check on her patients and found a horrific scene.

"I saw a resident sitting there with a bullet hole in her chest,” she said. "I went down the 200 hall, and I (saw) another dead – about two more dead residents – and I broke down.”

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 shooting.

Jill DeGarmo, another nursing assistant and Avant's fiancee, testified that she crouched beside him and prayed as he lay dying on the floor with two dozen bullet wounds.

Fletcher said she then saw Wanda Stewart, who was "crying hysterically."

"She stated to me she believed that was her husband,” Fletcher said. "She said, 'That’s him. That’s him.'”