Terrified Worker Saw Stewart Coming, Escaped
A terrified nursing assistant saw it all coming.
Darlene Harris testified Thursday in Robert Kenneth Stewart’s murder trial that she locked eyes with the bearded gunman after he had already killed two residents at Pinelake nursing home on March 29, 2009, before she escaped the carnage.
In court, Harris identified Stewart as the man she saw that Sunday morning. He is charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of seven elderly patients and a nurse at Pinelake nursing home. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
He has admitted that he killed eight people, but his attorneys say he does not remember anything that day and that he was not in control of his actions because of the prescription drugs he was taking.
Harris testified that she was sitting in a front office at Pinelake nursing home and watched a large, bearded man getting a long gun out of the back of his car and heading for the front door of the facility.
Harris said she grabbed the phone to call 911, then saw that Stewart already had his hand on the door handle. She said she dropped the phone and rushed a resident down the hall, pushed her into a side room and then headed for the nurse’s stand, where nurse Jerry Avant stood.
She said she had not noticed another man come in a little earlier and rush to warn others that an armed man in the parking lot had shot and wounded him.
Just as she reached Avant, Harris said, she heard a frightening boom behind her. Later, she would learn it was Stewart killing Louise De Kler, who was waiting in her wheelchair just by the front door for her daughter.
She said they raced down the 300 hallway. Avant turned into a service hall, while Harris headed for the TLC unit, where they cared for patients with Alzheimer’s. She said she heard the shotgun fire again, behind her. Glancing back, Harris said she saw Stewart, and their eyes met.
“When I was standing at the end, I turned around and looked,” she said. “We were staring at each other for a few minutes, eye to eye. Then he walked toward the 200 hall, and I heard another gunshot go off. I went into the Alzheimer’s unit.”
It had a pass-code lock, but Harris knew the code and entered.
“I ran in and said, ‘There’s a big man out there, and he’s got a shotgun, and he’s shooting people!’” Harris said. “One of the employees said, ‘That’s my husband!’ That was Wanda.”
She was referring to Wanda Neal, Stewart’s estranged wife, who worked at the nursing home.
Harris said she called 911 for help. She said she escaped, running out a door into a patio yard with a fence and a gate.
“I went through the gate and ran through the woods,” she said. “Other employees were running. I ran to a house. I called one of my co-workers, Cathy Galbreath. I asked her to come pick me up, because I needed a way to get out.”
Taking refuge at that house, others were calling family members for help.
“We were driven up to the top of the hill,” Harris said. “It was a Laundromat up there, and some family members arrived to pick people up. I felt it was better to go somewhere that was crowded, so I ran to the McDonald’s. I remember opening the door and getting into a corner. I just stood there.”
Harris said she was terrified, shaking in fear. She told people around her what was going on, then just broke down, according to testimony. EMS came and checked her vital signs, gave her oxygen and headed for Moore Regional Hospital.
Inside the ambulance, her phone rang.
“It was Cathy,” she said. “She was on her way up to Pinelake. I asked her to follow EMS.”
Harris said she was so terrified when EMS got her to the hospital that she made them put a sheet over her head.
“I didn’t want him to see me,” she said. “I begged them, ‘Please cover my face!’ — so he wouldn’t see who I was. I didn’t want him to shoot me, too.”
Trembling at the thought, gasping, she broke into tears on the stand.
Prosecutor Tiffany Bartholomew asked Harris if she saw that same man in the courtroom, and if she could describe him to the jury. Harris gathered herself and looked across the courtroom at Stewart.
‘That man right there,” she said, voice shaking. “Black jacket and a white shirt.”
Earlier Thursday, a Carthage police lieutenant testified Thursday afternoon that he found Stewart lying face down, handcuffed hands behind him, and got down flat on the floor himself to give the Miranda warning.
Lt. Rick Bickel said he had rushed to the rear entrance of Pinelake after hearing from officer Justin Garner that the shooter was down, and Garner had been shot.
“I could see a faint figure of someone lying and someone standing,” Bickel said. “Inside, I saw a gentleman laying on his chest, handcuffed. I saw Justin Garner leaning on a wall, a little bit of blood on his left leg. He looked as if he was in pain.”
Leaving sheriff’s deputies guarding the suspect, Bickel said he collected Garner’s handgun, unloaded it and got the officer to his patrol car, where he took off Garner’s boot and sock and checked the wound. Then, he returned to the scene and got down on the floor, where he could look Stewart in the eye.
“He was lying down, and I had to get down low,” Bickel said. “I literally lay on my chest in front of him. I said, ‘You have the right to remain silent, anything you say may be used against you in a court…’”
Bickel said he gave Stewart his Miranda rights, the two lying face-to-face on the floor not far from a pistol on the floor and a long-barreled shotgun leaning against the wall. But jurors did not hear that statement.
Sustaining a defense motion, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb would not allow any testimony about the Miranda warning. The prosecution had hoped to get it in to show Stewart had his wits about him and could understand the rights Bickel read to him.
The jury was allowed to hear what Bickel said Stewart told him after that.
“I asked if he was the only one in there shooting,” Bickel said.
Stewart told the policeman no – he was alone, no other shooters. Bickel asked how many people he'd shot.
“He replied he didn’t know,” Bickel said.
He said he looked, briefly, in Stewart’s face and could smell no unusual odors or alcohol. Up to that point, Stewart had appeared calm, according to Bickel’s testimony.
“Judging by his statement shortly thereafter, he was upset,” Bickel said. “He asked me to shoot him.”
Bickel said Stewart was anxious, a little excited.
“Just shoot me,” he said Stewart asked. “Come on, get it over with.”
It was at the last phrase, when he wanted Bickel to get it over with, that his voice appeared to be excited.
“It was anxious, a little excited,” Bickel said. “When he spoke the last phrase, ‘Just get it over with; shoot me.’ He was obviously excited at that point, upset.”
Bickel watched EMS workers load Stewart onto a gurney and put him into an ambulance.
After EMS loaded Stewart, Bickel said he encountered two women near the intersection of the 300 and 400 hallways.
“One of them asked me if it was Robert, and I did not know,” he said. “After I got her back in the room, she said, ‘It’s got to be Robert. Robert is my husband.’”
That was Wanda Stewart (now Wanda Neal), the defendant’s estranged wife, who worked at Pinelake.
At the hospital emergency room, nurse Rebecca Powell dressed Stewart's wound and packed gauze to stem bleeding. She said he was always handcuffed except when they had to be removed for medical procedures like X-rays. He seemed alert, able to answer questions, she said.
“He told me he and his wife separated,” she said in testimony Thursday afternoon. “He’d been very nervous, took some nerve pills when he went to see his wife. She was working at Pinelake.”
Stewart told her he was suicidal, and she went through the standard routine of getting him to make what she called “a contract” not to hurt anybody while he was in the hospital.
When he told Powell he wanted to kill himself, she asked if he had the means.
“I would shoot myself,” she said he told her.
Just before the morning recess County Medical Examiner Max Muse took the stand and told how there’d been so many deaths he’d had to call another county medical examiner for help. He called the chief medical examiner for the state who asked how many deceased people he had.
“I don’t know,” Muse said. “We are still counting.”
He’d been on his way to the First Presbyterian Church in Carthage that Sunday when he heard the radio call. A minute later his pager went off.
“Any time you have a death – homicide, suicide, child death – I am called,” Muse said. “I was dropping my child off and we were going to Sunday School right at 10 o’clock. I overheard on the police channel the dispatch of an officer to Pinelake and about a minute later our pagers were activated to respond.”
He wasn’t told to go to the nursing home directly.
“They told us to ‘stage’ – which is to park away from the scene,” he. I linked up with (EMS supervisor) Mike Allred. We decided he would go in the back door, I would go in the front door and we would keep in touch by radios.”
Muse went in the front door closest to the flag pole, and there was the first body.
“We were given the ‘all clear’ and I parked right at the front door,” he said. “I went in through the front door with the trauma bag – anything you need to give first aid. The first thing I saw was a very small, very frail female slumped over in a wheelchair with a large amount of blood. I checked for a long time for any sign of life and found none.”
He’d held the carotid artery for a full 15 seconds before giving up and reporting an apparent homicide over the radio to Allred. The reply startled him’
‘I thought you were going in the front door,” Allred said. “I am at the back door, and that’s what I’ve got.”
Muse saw a large amount of blood under that wheelchair on the floor.
“It almost crossed the hall,” he said. “A person with such an abdominal shotgun wound might survive – but probably not.”
Muse went down the hall and turned left toward the nurse’s station. He’d been to Pinelake many times, but this was different.
“I could hear crying, shouting, alarms going off,” he said..
Muse found another woman slumped in a wheelchair with an abdominal wound, she was missing a thumb. Checking her pulse and finding none, he reported that person was deceased also.
“At that point, someone directed me to the nurse that had been injured,” he said. ”They took me to the nurse at the end of a hall by a door with windows that were broken out. He had been shot. It appeared to be multiple times. I noticed a broken femur – the largest bone in the body, from your hip down to your knee. He could not move.”
It was Jerry Avant, and he was conscious, could speak with Muse.
“I asked how he was breathing,” Muse testified. “He said ‘a little tough.’ (On the radio) I said I needed the next ambulance for this gentleman. His blood pressure was fair, 100 over 60.”
But it was dropping quickly, a bad sign Muse knew.
“I might have waited a minute or two, then it was down to 80 over 40,” he said. “He was going into shock, and he needed to be in the OR. Several members of our rescue team arrived.”
Muse knew Avant’s fiancée Jill DeGarmo, because she’d volunteered with the Carthage Rescue Squad.
“Jill came around the corner and was crying, talking to him,” Muse said. “They brought me an oxygen concentrator that plugs in the wall, but it only makes a low flow.”
That device could provide only a third of what Avant would need with a mask, and there was no place to plug it in.
“Bullet holes, the blood was just coming out,” Muse said. “He said he knew he was going to die. Jill was at his side. They prayed together.”
He told somebody to go, stand in the road, and stop the next ambulance that comes in.
“He said he knew that he was dying and asked if Jill would pray with him,” Muse said. “It was very eerie having him say that he was dying. He was in a great deal of pain. He was very stoic about it. He had multiple gunshot wounds, a fractured femur, and blood loss.”
The entire world was coming to assist, Muse testified. Every available ambulance was at Pinelake or on its way. EMTs finally got to Avant.
“They loaded him on a gurney, connected O2, their tank, and out the door they went,” he said. “Then I went around the corner, down the hall, and happened to come into the area where police officers were. They were standing the gentleman up, taking off his shirt, and someone yelled ‘Gun!’ and they all drew down on him. Someone said, ‘Make him trauma naked!’
They took off Stewart’s clothing down to his shorts to make sure he had nothing he could use to harm anybody else.
“I notified the other county medical examiner and asked her to come assist me. I called the chief medical examiner and told him I would be sending him everybody from Pinelake that was deceased.”
The chief medical examiner of the state wanted to know how many that would be.
“I told him we were still counting,” Muse said, and described the procedure. “We look at the bodies, start our paperwork, identify them, and contact a transport service to take the bodies to Chapel Hill. All homicides are autopsied.”
There are more than one autopsy sites the state uses.
“I think at that point they were going to Chapel Hill,” he said. “I do a ‘pending’ on the death certificate. They send me the death certificate with the cause filled out for me to sign.”
In every case, that cause was “gunshot wound to the abdomen.”
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