State News

Accused gunman's ex-wife had awful feeling he was nursing home shooter

Posted August 16, 2011 4:01 a.m. EDT
Updated August 16, 2011 6:30 p.m. EDT

— When Robert Stewart's ex-wife wife heard there was a gunman at her workplace on March 29, 2009, she had an awful feeling it was him.

After dramatic delays that involved a failed suicide attempt, Wanda Neal took the witness stand Tuesday in Stewart's trial for killing of eight people at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Moore County.

Neal told the court she overdosed on 60 prescription pills, including the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, and alcohol on July 31, the night before the trial began, and was hospitalized until last week. Superior Court Judge James Webb ruled Monday that lawyers could refer to her recent suicide attempt during her testimony.

Prosecutors say Stewart was searching for her when he shot and killed seven patients and a nurse at the nursing home. He is charged with eight counts of murder and could face the death penalty if convicted.

His lawyers don't deny he pulled the trigger, but say he wasn't responsible for his actions because of depression and an overdose of prescription drugs, which left him in a hypnotic state.

Neal was working in the locked Alzheimer's unit at Pinelake the day of the shooting. She said people began calling her co-workers' cellphones and telling them someone was inside the building with a gun.

"They were telling us there was a bearded man out there in the hallway who had been shooting," Neal said.

Neal said she had an awful feeling it was Stewart.

The nurses put the patients in the TV room, placed a chair against the main door to the room and put the blinds down, Neal said. 

Neal said she went to the nearest bathroom and shut the door.

"I just had the funniest feeling it was him, and I wanted to get out there. I wanted to get out there in that hall to see my people, make sure they were alright," Neal said of patients outside of the unit.

Neal said she never thought Stewart would do something like that. 

"He always talked against hurting old people and children. If I thought he would have done it, I would never have gone back into Pinelake," Neal said. 

The shootings ended when a Carthage police officer shot Stewart in the shoulder.

When Neal came out of the unit, she saw Stewart. 

"I looked around the corner and saw that it was him. He was lying on the floor," she said.

That night, Neal went to the mobile home she used to share with Stewart. She found beer cans and glass in the hallway and one of the couple's wedding photos on the floor.

She called the police after finding a last will and testament in Stewart's sock drawer and pills and ammunition on the table.

Since the shootings, Neal said, she has had nightmares. She said she attempted suicide because "everything had built up." 

"I know a lot of of family members hold everything against me. I can understand that," Neal said. 

Defense attorney Jonathan Megerian pointed out that Neal was given Xanax and the anti-depressant Lexapro, the same medications Stewart was taking before the shootings. 

"You attempted to kill yourself when you had simply been provided a bunch of prescription medications," Megerian said. "In fact, what needed to happen was you needed to be hospitalized, as you have been. That helped you, the pills didn't."

Marriage was 'rocky'

Neal said she met Stewart at an Aberdeen rolling-skating rink when she was 14, and their relationship was marked by episodes of jealousy and violence.

“Me and some friends of mine were talking and having a good time (at a high school dance). Robert got mad and walked to his truck,” she said. “He smacked me.”

At other times, Stewart threatened men whom Neal befriended, including beating up a student at Sandhills Community College. Neal said that, when Stewart would get angry he would give her a certain look, which left her afraid. 

“Sometimes it was good. Sometimes it was bad. It was rocky,” Neal said of her marriage to Stewart. “I would keep going back home to Mommy and Daddy. Robert would call me back, crying.”

They divorced after less than two years together in the 1980s, and then she and Stewart both remarried. She didn't see him for more than a decade, but they reconnected after Stewart's father died in 2001 and then remarried in June 2002.

"It was good and bad," she said of their second marriage. "We had some good times.”

During the bad times, Stewart lost his painting business and filed for bankruptcy. After the filing, Neal said Stewart pushed her down some steps and pulled a gun on her. No one was hurt in the incident, she said.

Neal said she started working at Pinelake to support the couple and her three children from a previous marriage. Stewart had poor health, including back pain, insomnia and breathing difficulties, and he was on disability, she said. 

In the middle of March 2009, she said, she left Stewart again. Neal said she didn't leave sooner because she was "tired of being a failure."

"The past marriages and everything – I wanted it to work. I guess I felt like I deserved what I was getting, because I went back, because I left the first time. I wanted to make it work," she said.