Stewart's Ex-Wife Wept Testifying About Killings
Robert Stewart's ex-wife testified Tuesday in his murder trial.
Breaking down in tears and sobs, Wanda Neal told jurors about the day her former husband killed eight people – almost all of them elderly residents she’d cared for at Pinelake nursing home in Carthage. When she heard about the large, bearded man with a gun, she had a sinking feeling he was her husband, she said.
Robert Kenneth Stewart could face execution if convicted of any of eight first-degree murder charges in this trial. His counsel admitted he did all the killings alleged in the indictments, but contend he’s not legally guilty based on medical grounds.
The state contends that Wanda Neal (then Stewart) was the real target of her husband’s March 29, 2009, rampage at the Carthage Nursing Home where she worked.
Neal was calm and collected for most of Tuesday morning as she told of their relationship, begun when she was only 14. She turned down his first proposal, telling Stewart she was “too young.”
Later, they married. That lasted only a year and a half before the couple divorced. Each of them married others, she a number of times, short marriages. Neal had three children during her longest marriage, to Kevin Luck.
She and Stewart reconnected at the time of his father’s funeral, began dating, and remarried after each got a divorce.
Their Second Marriage was Rocky
Neal described their times together as mixed and “rocky.”
“It was good and bad,” she said. “We had some good times. He was in good health, far as I knew (during their first marriage, but since then) he had gotten a lot heavier – had a beard and everything.”
After the two got back together they both began drinking heavily, according to her testimony.
“Sometimes I could out-drink him,” she said. “Pretty much daily – not during the day, no. It was in the afternoons when we got back to the house.”
Around a year into that second marriage, Neal cut back on her drinking, she said. Stewart had medical problems, lost his painting business, and went bankrupt.
His breathing was a problem now, she said. He had back trouble and pain from a mule falling on his legs “when he was married to Sue,” she said. “He finally got on disability.”
On the stand Neal seemed to be trying to be fair, an attitude some of the family members in the courtroom thought looked as if she were still protecting him.
“There were some good times, too,” she said. “He had a temper, just like I do. He could get angry, give you a certain look. I just know how I felt – scared, a lot of times. ”
Finally, She'd Had Enough
By the time she left him for the last time – just two weeks before he came to where she worked with a long-barreled shotgun, a .22 rifle, and a bag of ammunition – Neal had started checking tires on her blue PT Cruiser, fearful he’d do something to her car.
She’d stayed in this marriage only because she didn’t want to be a failure, thinking of all her failed marriages, she told the court.
Between their two, Stewart had gained a lot of weight, had breathing problems, developed sleep Apnea, and back and leg pain that eventually put him out of work and on disability.
Neal thought he felt guilty for not being able to work. She’d earned her CNA, begun working at Pinelake where she often worked double shifts.
On the Saturday before that fatal Sunday, Neal worked first shift. On Sunday, again she was to work 7 to 3.
LOCKDOWN: Gunman in the Halls Shooting People
Neal’s demeanor on the stand changed markedly as she began to relate the events of Sunday, Mar. 29, 2009. Taking deep breaths, stopping from time to time to compose herself, she told jurors of the first instant she’d realized something bad was happening at Pinelake.
Neal was in the Alzheimer’s Unit when she heard supervisor Debbie Gordon over the intercom saying “Lockdown!”
“People called in on cell phones saying there was somebody with a gun,” Neal said, voice starting to shake. “We started getting residents and putting them in the TV room. Some of the CNAs came back there, and a nurse. They said a bearded man in the hallway had been shooting people.”
That struck her hard, with a terrible intuitive notion.
“I just had the funniest feeling, when they said it was somebody with a gun,” she said. “I had the awfullest feeling that it was him.”
There came a dreadful warning: danger was approaching the hall just outside the unit. Everybody took what refuge they could find in a matter of seconds.
“One of the CNAs said, ‘He’s coming down 400 hall!’ and I went in a bathroom and hid there,” Neal said. “That’s when I started hearing the shots.”
Finally, word came that the shooter was down and under arrest.
It was her husband on the floor.
“When they said that they had him, I went out,” Neal said. “A cop was out there, and I saw one of the bodies on the floor. I came out and said I thought it was him.”
When she told that to the officer, he escorted her to a room at the end of the 400 hall. She saw her husband.
“They had escorted me to a room, and before I went in I looked around the corner, and there he was,” she said. “I looked around the corner and saw it was him. He was lying on the floor.”
When she came out, she started pushing residents in wheelchairs to an activity room near the nurses’ station. Stewart was still on the floor. She tried her best not to look. Taking the residents to the activity room meant going outside and around the building to get to that room instead of using the hallway.
Later, Neal started back to her regular 200 hall to check on “her” people. She broke down as she began to tell about that, weeping at the thought.
“I got as far as the nurses’ station, and I saw Miss Lillian and I couldn't go no farther,” Neal said, sobbing and wiping tears.
Lillian Dunn had been killed in her wheelchair with a shotgun and was still there, slumped over in her red and white Sunday dress.
Defense attorney Jonathan Megerian objected frequently whenever Neal began to talk about their relationship, but Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb overruled every time except when he objected to "coaching the witness" in the form of the prosecutor's question. Those, he sustained or allowed Prosecutor Peter Strickland to rephrase.
On cross-examination, Megerian asked Neal about a statement she gave investgators.
“I never thought he would do anything like that in a million years,” she’d told detectives. “He always talked about not hurting older people or children. I never thought he would have done it.”
He asked about the drugs she'd taken and about her suicide attempt.
She knew what she was doing when she took those pills, she'd told Strickland on direct.
I wanted all this to end," she said. “Everyhing was built up, I know a lot of the family members hold everything against me. I understand, and I can’t take it no more.”
“Since your stay in the hospital do you have those same thoughts?” Strickland asked her.
“No, sir,” she said. “I am stronger.”
Megerian made a point about psychotropic drugs by asking how they'd worked for her, compared to hospital treatment,
“When you went to see a doctor, and they gave you a sort of cocktail prescription, that didn’t work and you ended up trying to kill yourself," he said. "You ended up being involuntarily committed when you were provided no counseling, no help, just given pills. That helped you. The pills didn’t; the hospital did,” Megerian said.
Stewart, who says he has no actual memory of those events, admits he shot and killed seven helpless elderly patients and a nurse at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center before coming face to face with Carthage police officer Justin Garner in a long hallway at the center. He and Garner fired simultaneously, according to Garner’s testimony. Both were hit, and Stewart went down, moaning. Using two sets of handcuffs, Garner secured the near-400 pound bearded gunman and called for backup.
Neal was set to take the stand last week until it came out that she’d been hospitalized with a drug overdose following a suicide attempt the day before the trial started in Carthage. After she agreed to sign releases, her medical records were turned over to the court.
Webb ruled lawyers may use her mental health records when she did testify. On the stand, the defense made little if any apparent use of those records when questioning Neal.
Following Neal, Stewart’s former stepson Brian Pilson told of an incident when Stewart was hitting his mother, driving her into his room where she fell on the bottom bunk next to him as his stepfather was hitting the bed with Pilson’s BB gun.
Defense complained Pilson never mentioned that until he told prosecutors the day before.Stewart's lawyer Franklin Wells asked the witness if he hadn't mentioned that until the day before when he had a criminal case pending in district court.
“It’s what happened, sir,” Pilson said.
Defense attorneys Megerian and Wells had told the court Monday they understood records from The Prescription Shop showed Neal took the anti-psychotic drug Haldol while in the mental health ward at Moore Regional Hospital and been prescribed two more anti-psychotics when she went home last week.
Megerian said that could be relevant if it turns out that she is still taking them while testifying, and also might affect her ability to recall what she relates on the stand.
Objections to any use of Neal’s medical history were raised by Katherine Boyatt, a lawyer defending Neal and the nursing home against a civil suit for damages stemming from the shootings.
Boyatt contended any medical records resulting from Neal’s suicide attempt could have nothing to do with those events from over two years ago. She moved they not be unsealed or turned over for use by either side in the case
“We believe they are not admissible,” Boyatt said. “They don't go toward anything exculpatory or to witness credibility.”
Webb had turned down her proposal he review the records, saying that would put the court “in a terrible, untenable position.”
Both defense and prosecution may have access to the records, with a sealed copy retained by the court as part of the record, Webb said, overruling Boyatt’s objection.
The defense may not use information from the medical history unless something Neal says on the stand means they need to during cross-examination, Megerian said.
“Motion is allowed,” Webb ruled. “The defendant may open the reports and supply copies to the state and a sealed copy to the clerk for the record.”
Boyatt or some attorney from their office is to be present in court when Neal testifies, and might object at the time that material from her records is not appropriate for use.
“The court will listen carefully and intently to cross-examination of Mrs. Neal,” Webb said. “Neither side is prohibited from any of the records.”
He inquired as to the remaining witnesses for the state, and Strickland said that Wednesday he would call three doctors, one of whom would not be available after that day until the end of the month.
No evidence was presented Monday . Court ended early amid predictions that trial would soon be over.
The jury had an unexpected day off after two of them called in sick. Without a full panel, there was no way testimony could continue — so all the jurors stayed in Stanly County.
After ruling on a number of motions in the case Monday, Webb recessed court until the following morning.
As the jury entered court Tuesday, Webb announced that one of the jurors, Juror Number 10 in the front row, had been excused due to illness. The second alternate took that seat, and the remaining two alternates moved to new seats to the left of the 12.
The state expects to rest its case this week, perhaps Thursday.
“Our hope is to begin Monday,” Megerian said. “We have a toxicologist, a psychiatrist – will call a couple of lay witnesses first – be done by Wednesday. If Wanda testifies this week, we’ll be finished Wednesday.”
Stewart’s fate could be in the hands of the jury by the end of next week, if all goes as proposed Monday in court.
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