Carthage Officer Describes Confrontation With Killer
Carthage police officer Justin Garner said he thought it was only a misunderstanding when he first received a call on the morning of March 29 about shots fired at a nursing home.
When Garner arrived at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center a few minutes later, he quickly realized that was not the case when he saw a car in the parking lot with the windshield shot out. But little did he know that a lone gunman was on a murderous rampage inside the facility.
Garner told Matt Lauer, host of NBC's "The Today Show," on Monday that it was "very scary" walking into Pinelake and not knowing where the shooter was in the building. The alleged gunman, Robert Kenneth Stewart, had already killed seven elderly patients and a nurse.
Garner entered the nursing home without backup and ended the killing spree with a single shot to Stewart's upper chest in a hallway near the rear of the facility. He has been widely hailed as a hero.
Garner and Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie appeared on "The Today Show" at NBC's studio in New York to talk about the events of that tragic morning.
The 25-year-old Garner was the only officer on duty on that calm Sunday morning when, as McKenzie said, most people in Carthage are in church.
"They said 'shots fired at the building,' and I thought 'there are a lot of residences around there,'" he told Lauer. "'Somebody is probably target-shooting nearby.' I saw a car with its windshield shot out. That's when I realized there was something serious going on."
Garner described how he searched down hallways at Pinelake, never knowing when he might come face-to-face with a crazed killer.
At the time, Garner had no way to know that the gunman was going from room to room and hall to hall killing elderly men and women wherever he found them, in bed or in a wheelchair. He told of opening doors, going down hallways, looking for the gunman.
"It was very scary," Garner said. "Very scary."
The show played a clip from McKenzie's Carthage press conference of the week before.
"I don't know if he will ever know how many lives he saved," McKenzie said during the news conference. "If that's not heroic, I don't know what is."
McKenzie told Lauer all Carthage officers are trained to respond just as Garner did, though nobody can know how he or she will act until such a time arrives, which he hopes never will again.
Garner told Lauer that Stewart came at Garner out of another hallway, reloading the shotgun as he approached. On the table before Lauer and his guests stood examples of the kind of shotgun shells Stewart allegedly used.
"I instructed him to put the gun down three times," Garner said. "He did the opposite. He fired. He managed to get one shot off."
Garner said he never heard the shotgun blast, apparently because it came simultaneously with his pistol shot.
The shotgun blast put three pellets into Garner -- two in his lower leg and one in his foot. Garner fired one shot from his sidearm, striking Stewart in the upper chest.
It was clear from the amount of ammunition the shooter had brought with him that he was prepared to keep killing if Garner had not stopped him, McKenzie said.
"The loss of life would have been a lot greater," McKenzie said. "Justin saved an unknown number of lives. We may never know how many, but it certainly saved an unknown number of lives. He was reloading. Certainly, had Justin not done what he did the loss of life would have been far greater."
This sort of event is his worst fear, McKenzie told Lauer.
"Multiple people being killed for an unknown reason," he said. "Sure, you try to teach our officers to do (what Garner did) -- but you never know until it happens how anyone will act."
Garner said the realization that he'd saved lives didn't hit him right away.
"Only later on," Garner said. "That night, when I was getting ready to go to bed."
His hometown has overwhelmed Garner with its support.
"I got a lot of support from the town," he said. "A lot of support from family, friends."
Lauer looked over at McKenzie where he sat next to his corporal, both in full uniform as police officers of the town of Carthage.
"Good training," he told the chief.
Letters, packages and notes are piling up at headquarters waiting for Garner's return. McKenzie is fielding requests from law-enforcement agencies that want to use this story for training.
Employees at the Town Hall couldn't take their eyes off the television set Monday morning. Town Manager Carol Sparks had high praise for both policemen.
"I am very, very proud of both of them," she said. "People have a lot of misconceptions about the South, about small towns. Some are that small-town police only want to sit and give speeding tickets."
Carthage spends a lot of money making sure its officers are well trained and well equipped.
"They are training all the time," she said. "All of them are trained, ready if they have to. They would all have responded the way Justin did."
Garner and McKenzie returned home from New York late Monday afternoon. On Tuesday morning, surgeons removed all but one of the shotgun pellets that struck Garner. He was not available for an interview Tuesday.
"The pellets are evidence," McKenzie said.
McKenzie said one or two of his officers were to be there that morning to put the pellets in evidence bags once they were removed from Garner's leg and foot. The pellets were to be turned over to the Moore County Sheriff's Office, which is handling the investigation.
One of the pellets will remain in Garner for life, a souvenir of that fateful morning.
"It is one in his calf," McKenzie said. "It is so deep in tissue they don't feel it is safe to try to get it out."
Garner may carry that pellet for the rest of his days, but he'll also be carrying something more important, McKenzie said -- the knowledge that his actions that Sunday morning will be remembered forever by the families whose loved ones survived that day.
"They lived because Justin Garner was there," McKenzie said. "A lot of lives were saved because of him."
Mayberry Meets Big City
Their trip to Radio City was a sudden change for Garner, who has avoided the press while recovering from his wounds and the impact of the murder scene.
"Justin handled it really, really well," McKenzie said of "The Today Show" appearance. "He might have been a little nervous before we went on air. He'd never seen a camera or a studio. I told Justin to do absolutely nothing but be Justin Garner. He says, 'What if they ask me this? What if they ask me that?' I told him don't be anything but Justin. He did. We joked about that a little bit. You are talking about 14 million people. That is a lot to wrap your head around."
NBC had called last week with the invitation, according to Sparks. A network representative came to Carthage to make arrangements.
Justin and his wife, Stephanie, flew up to New York Saturday, according to Sparks. McKenzie stayed behind in Carthage so he and his wife, Allison, could take part in a memorial and healing service Saturday night. He and his wife flew up Sunday.
"We got a chance to spend time around town, to see Staten Island and Times Square and ride a subway," McKenzie said. "Justin wanted to ride on a subway, so we took one from Times Square all the way down to the Staten Island Ferry."
It was not unlike "Mayberry Meets the Big City." They stayed at the venerable Essex Hotel on Central Park.
"That was interesting for a couple of country boys," McKenzie said.
Early Sunday morning, NBC arranged a horse-and-carriage ride for Garner and his wife around Central Park.
When McKenzie and his wife arrived, the four visitors from Carthage had one place in mind they wanted to visit.
"Justin and I wanted to go to Ground Zero, and I am glad we did," McKenzie said.
Thinking back on the trip, McKenzie hopes just seeing two regular town cops after the horrible week of murders around the country would be somehow reassuring to people.
"I don't know what drives anyone to the point where they take up arms and kill people," he said. "I hate that our trip was occasioned by something like Pinelake, but I hope seeing what ordinary officers like Justin do will be reassuring. That was the hope -- that it helps some folks, somewhere, somehow, to see that everything is OK."
That was why they weren't wearing dress blues when the two faced Lauer as the star expressed amazement at Garner's story.
"A long week, and next week won't be a lot more rest," McKenzie said Monday night in a telephone interview from home. "I have meetings planned with folks in Raleigh this week to try to turn this situation as positively as I can. I hope to use this to build the best training we possibly can."
McKenzie said it was nice to be back in Carthage. It had been more than enough grandeur for one police chief, he added.
"After all this is done, and all that e-mail and calls and letters, you come home and your dogs look at you just the same," McKenzie said. "I get on the floor and play with my dogs, and everything is just kind of normal, at least for a little bit."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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