The Day Justin Garner's Police Training Paid Off
When Justin Garner entered the front door of Pinelake Rehab Center in Carthage two weeks ago today, he met a woman on her way out in a big hurry.
"She said there was a gunman in there shooting, but I had no chance to say anything to her," Garner recently recalled. "She came by me running as fast as she could run. She was leaving. There was no stopping her."
Garner unhesitatingly went in through the door by which that frightened woman had just left, and his subsequent actions ended a murderous shooting spree that left seven elderly nursing home patients and one nurse dead and three people wounded.
On Thursday, sitting with his wife, Stephanie, in the office of Carthage Police Chief Chris T. McKenzie, Garner gave a detailed account of that day. He told how it all started on a calm Sunday morning as he sat in his patrol car watching cars go down the main street of his hometown.
"I was actually sitting in the PVA at Carthage Auto Glass," Garner said. Then, noticing that his wife was looking puzzled at the term, he added: "The parking lot: Public Vehicle Area."
A radio call from the office of the 911 dispatcher around the corner in the next block interrupted Garner's observation of sleepy Sunday school traffic. The call asked him to go to Pinelake nursing home and check out a complaint about somebody shooting. This is not an uncommon complaint in the rural South. He's responded to such calls on many an occasion, and this time he figured it was just a target shooter somewhere near the home.
"They gave me a call saying some shots had been fired at the building," he said. "I proceeded to the call thinking somebody next door could have been shooting, maybe struck the building not realizing it, because there are a bunch of houses around in the neighborhood there. That's what my impression was when they gave me the call to go. We receive calls all the time about shots fired in different areas."
Aside from knowing the inherent risks accepted by anyone who becomes a uniformed officer -- and a few "tussles" now and then -- Garner had never felt his life was actually in danger. This day would be different.
He was about to walk directly into murder in progress with no backup but without a moment to lose. People were dying, being gunned down by a crazed killer raging through their place of sanctuary.
"I never expected something like that," Garner said. "Very scary. But really, you don't have a whole lot of time to think about it. You just have time to react. I was thinking, 'I don't know where he is.' That was the scariest part: I didn't know where he was when I went in."
As soon as he got the call, Garner headed straight for Pinelake. He circled the old county courthouse, took a right on Rockingham Street and a left at the next corner on Saunders by the Carthage museum and Frye-Prickett funeral home, and then right again and downhill, passing the county Board of Elections and Lake Luke Marion and left to pull up into the parking lot at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center.
As soon as his patrol car rolled to a stop by the front door, Garner came upon something to put him on full alert. He knew this was serious business.
"I saw a truck, and the window was shot out of it," he said. "It was the driver's-side window. It was off to my right. I got out."
'Subject Is Down'
When he entered the building after passing the woman fleeing for her life, Garner could see offices to his left and right, a hall table ahead of him, another room off the right and a dining hall farther down. He moved deeper into the center, not knowing where danger might be waiting.
"I was going through the building checking rooms and doors," he said. "I was taking my time. I couldn't pass a door and not check it, because I didn't know if he was in there about to shoot me in the back or something. I was checking the best I could."
He moved toward a nursing station where hallways branch off with rooms on either side, looking and listening, but not hearing gunfire. He was about to learn that the shooter was only reloading.
"When I got to the nursing station, I took a right to go to a hallway," Garner said. "When I got in that hallway, the guy came out of another."
Looking down that long stretch of hall, Garner saw a large, bearded man come in from the left, farther down, apparently reloading a shotgun.
"We were in the hallway together," Garner said. "He had a gun in his hand, like this, pointing up, just kind of pointing up to the ceiling there. I ordered him about three times -- several times -- to put the gun down."
Garner watched the gunman coming toward him up the long hall. The man wasn't dropping the shotgun. He was starting to lower it in Garner's direction. Garner didn't recognize Robert Stewart. Though both had belonged to the same hunting club, that was a long time ago in the life of the 25-year-old policeman.
"I was 17 -- didn't even know he was in that hunting club till all this come about," Garner said. "I've been in the club for a while -- mostly hunt from a stand. My dad was in it."
He's a hunter and knows a shotgun when he sees one. Now he saw one coming down to point at him. Three times he gave the same order to the bearded man.
"Drop your gun!" Garner shouted. "Drop your gun! Drop your gun!"
The man just kept coming and aiming, and the young officer realized the man was about to shoot.
"He had his gun up; he lowered it down towards me," he said. "That's when I fired. I fired one shot."
Garner never heard that shotgun fire, apparently because it went off at the same moment he fired his pistol.
"I just felt something strike my leg," he said. "There was a little room there -- a patient's room maybe, but I never found out what it was. I fell back into that room, back to my left. I came out of the room -- don't know whether I've struck the guy or not. I had to find out where he was. I was certain that if I hadn't hit him, that he was coming. I had to find out."
Garner ignored his own wound and returned to the hallway, where he found Stewart on the floor.
"I was bleeding," Garner said. "It wasn't a whole lot of blood. It was bleeding a little bit. I came out of the room and saw he was down and the gun had fallen away from him. I made my approach to him where he was lying. I told him to put his hands behind his back. He put them back as far as he could, and I cuffed him."
Garner secured the shotgun, then used the microphone on his shoulder to report.
"The subject is down," he said.
It had been all of four minutes since the 911 call had brought him to this spot.
'Lord Was With Me'
"How long did it seem?" Stephanie Garner asked her husband.
A long time, he said. Time slowed to a crawl during that frightening search and armed confrontation.
"If you go in a situation like that and you're not -- I mean, I think you know you are going to be scared," he said with a dry laugh. "I don't see anybody not being scared in a situation like that. I just thank God that the Lord was there with me and took care of me."
Chief McKenzie seldom interrupted his corporal during the interview, but now he spoke.
"St. Michael was there," the chief said. "Leading the way."
Dragon-slayer Michael is the patron saint of police.
Just as Garner had gotten control of the scene, his backup arrived in the form of two deputies from Sheriff Lane Carter's force and a police officer from Whispering Pines. Garner stayed right where he was. He had a man in custody and duty to do.
"I stayed there with the guy until a lot more people arrived," Garner said. "When my lieutenant, Rick Bickel, got there, he helped me out to the car. I sat in the car until EMS treated me and sent me to Moore Regional."
His wife listened as her husband told again the story that, for her, began while she was dressing for church. A friend phoned, and it was the first she'd heard of what had happened.
"A lady at church has a scanner," Stephanie Garner said, "and she'd heard it and wanted to know if it was true. I hadn't heard anything then, but on the way to the hospital he called and told me it was a bad situation but he was OK. Not too long after that, some deputies and Sergeant Gibbons came and picked me up and took me to the hospital."
'A Lot of Support'
Garner, like many other boys in Carthage, wanted to be a fireman or a policeman when he grew up. He became both, joining the town's volunteer fire department about as soon as he was old enough. He learned that a lot of Carthage firefighters also served as policemen, including Chris McKenzie.
"I got on the fire department when I was about 17 years old and met a lot of the police officers here in Carthage," Garner said. "It was something I wanted to try, and I've enjoyed it ever since. I guess it kind of came with being on the fire department and meeting and talking with the guys, you know."
Stephanie and Justin Garner both grew up in the county seat. They met in school.
"We went to high school together at Union Pines," he said. "I graduated in '02; she graduated in '05."
In 2005, his first year as a Carthage cop, he was honored by the department as Policeman of the Year. He and Stephanie married, she went on to study nursing, following in the footsteps of her mother. He fell into the routine of a small town peace officer: varying shifts, continuous training, church on Sunday when he wasn't on duty.
That bloody Sunday changed everything. Last week, Justin and Stephanie Garner found themselves in New York along with Chris and Allison McKenzie. The two officers appeared on NBC's "Today" show to talk about that bloody Sunday back home. They wore their regular uniforms, not dress blues. The wives watched the show from the Green Room.
The young officer is overwhelmed by the level of support coming from his community and others.
"People across the state, the community, fellow police officers, other agencies around here, firefighters -- I mean, everybody has just been super," he said. "Friends. I got a lot of support. Everybody was just calling, checking on me."
'I Am Blessed'
There are things he is not permitted to talk about before the trial; he has to protect the case for court. His own body is part of the evidence. Garner pulled up his left trouser to show a bandage covering his wound. Last week, surgeons removed two of the three buckshot pellets that struck him. A pair of Carthage officers were standing by with two evidence bags and collected a pellet each for examination at the SBI lab and possible use in court. One bullet is still in him, behind his shinbone and too deep for safe removal. He'll keep it.
"Yeah, they let one pellet stay in," he said.
Training to deal with various situations calling for law enforcement response has been part of everyday life for every Carthage officer. Now other agencies are calling to ask the chief for help and training advice.
McKenzie keeps details about police training under wraps as far as the public is concerned. All he will confirm is that, as a result of that training and Garner's character, this officer was ready to face a killer on a Sunday morning. That is what police train to be prepared to do.
Garner thinks he will be back to work sometime early in May. Stephanie, already a registered nurse, expects to receive her B.S. in nursing next December. Justin hopes to continue his education if he can find a scholarship to make it possible. In the meantime, McKenzie expects his officer will be spending a good deal of time signing autographs at this year's Buggy Festival on Mother's Day weekend.
"I am blessed," Garner said. "The Lord has really blessed me."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841.
More like this story