Nine years have passed since the mass shooting at a Carthage nursing home that still ranks as the deadliest single-day massacre in North Carolina's modern history. The rampage left eight people dead and briefly thrust Moore County into the national spotlight. Robert Stewart was convicted of the shooting in 2011. He is serving a 179-year sentence at the Caswell Correctional Center in Yanceyville. The following articles and many of the accompanying photographs were originally published in the April 1, 2009 issue of The Pilot. Each story explores a different aspect of the tragedy. The articles, several of which were previously unavailable on The Pilot's website, are presented here as they were in that day's newspaper and have not been revised. — Jaymie Baxley
Eight Slain in Shooting at Pinelake
BY JOHN KRAHNERT III
Three days after Robert Stewart’s bloody rampage at a Carthage nursing home Sunday morning, authorities are focusing on what triggered it.
Stewart, 45, who lives near Carthage, has been identified as the man who walked into Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center about 10 a.m. armed with multiple weapons and opened fire on patients and staff.
Eight people were killed — seven elderly patients, ranging in age from 75 to 98, and one nurse. Carthage police officer Justin Garner entered the facility about 10:06 a.m. without any backup.
One minute later, he shot Stewart in a back hallway and ended the massacre. Three others were wounded — including Garner, who has been hailed as a hero.
Authorities are still unclear on Stewart’s motive, but Moore County District Attorney Maureen Krueger said at a press conference Monday that the shootings were not a “random act of violence.”
“There are things that are rarely known by direct evidence,” she said. “When can one look into the heart and mind of another person and truly know what they think? The information on motive is incomplete at this time.
“But we can share this: This was not a random act of violence. There’s only one suspect, and he is in custody.”
Krueger said it would be “imprudent” for authorities to release additional details of the case at this time.
“It is imperative when details are released, that they’re completely accurate,” she said. “We don’t want to jeopardize the investigation, and we certainly don’t want to cause more trauma to the families.”
Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie said Stewart’s estranged wife, Wanda Luck, worked at the nursing home, and that they “may have been separated.”
According to the Associated Press, Luck hid in a bathroom in the locked Alzheimer’s wing. Stewart was unable to get to her because he did not have the passcode to open the door.
Those killed in the massacre have been identified as Tessie Garner, 75; Lillian Dunn, 89; Jesse Musser, 88; Bessie Hendrick, 78; John Goldston, 78; Margaret Johnson, 89; and Louise Deklar, 98.
A nurse who worked at the facility, Jerry Avant Jr., 39, was also killed. He was a 2003 graduate of Sandhills Community College’s licensed practical nursing program.
SCC President John Dempsey said that he has asked that the college’s flags be lowered to half-staff in honor of Avant. The college will also be creating a scholarship in his honor and memory.
“There really aren’t any words to describe or convey what we are all feeling at this time,” Dempsey said, “but lowering the flags probably says it as well as it can be said.”
Garner was treated at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital and discharged. Michael Cotten, 53, a visitor at the nursing home, was also injured and transported to Moore Regional Hospital. He has since been released.
Pinelake, on Pinehurst Avenue in Carthage next to the Moore County Office Park, is a 110-bed facility that specializes in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Appears Before Judge
Stewart made his “initial appearance” — a legal term for facing a judge who explains charges, maximum possible punishment if convicted, and rights to legal representation — Monday morning before Judge Jayrene Maness in the sally port of the Moore County Courthouse.
Krueger charged Stewart with eight counts of first-degree murder, and he is being held without bond. Sheriff Lane Carter said that his officers escorted Stewart to Central Prison in Raleigh at 10:30 a.m. Monday. Judge James Webb had signed an order of transfer based on medical and safekeeping reasons.
Stewart signed an affidavit of indigency describing his employment as “disabled” and asked for court-appointed counsel. The affidavit says he owns one motor vehicle, a “1987 Chevy Blazer” according to the document filed with the court.
Maness found Stewart indigent and ordered that he be provided court-appointed attorneys. Robert M. Hurley, of the state Office of Indigent Services, appointed two Asheboro attorneys, John Megerian and Frank Wells, to defend Stewart.
‘Oh God, He Is Coming’
Moore County’s 911 center starting receiving frantic calls from patients and staff shortly after Stewart began his rampage.
“There is a man out there shooting!” one woman caller exclaimed.
“We saw him out front. He is a white man with a long shotgun. … We just ran with some residents. Please get here. … Oh God. He’s coming. Oh God! He is coming. Be quiet (she tells others with her). Hurry, hurry, please hurry to the rest home. They’re close. Oh God!”
Stewart allegedly roamed through the facility, randomly shooting victims in wheelchairs and attempting to enter residents’ rooms. Former Pilot employee Kathy Lawrence said her aunt, Myrtie Kennedy, 92, was the only one on her hallway who survived the attacks.
Lawrence said Kennedy, who is wheelchair-bound, was able to close her door once the shooting began and push a chair with her feet in front of it and hold it in place. Stewart attempted to enter the room but was unsuccessful.
“I’m just grateful she survived,” Lawrence said. “It can happen anywhere, any time.”
Once Garner shot Stewart in a back hallway, Carthage police asked that every available officer in the county respond to help secure the scene.
Officers blocked off Pinehurst Avenue for much of the day. Police officers from various departments, Moore County sheriff’s deputies and State Highway Patrol troopers responded.
Officers were all over the facility, talking to employees and patients throughout the day. Employees and some residents could be seen sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch at the main entrance as officers went in and out of the building. Others milled about on the grounds.
At about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, after Pinehurst Avenue was reopened, three vehicles were towed away from the facility — a blue Chrysler PT Cruiser, a black Jeep Cherokee and a red pickup truck. Several windows on the PT Cruiser appeared to have been shot out by gunfire. Police have not confirmed who owned the vehicles, though it is believed that the pickup truck was Cotten’s.
Law enforcement officers also carried what appeared to be a rifle and a shotgun to one of their cars.
‘Lot of Crying, Praying’
Stunned family members gathered outside of the Moore County Courthouse and at First Baptist Church next door on the windy Sunday afternoon trying to obtain more information on the tragedy.
Several people could be seen crying, with looks of disbelief etched on their faces. Others pressed law-enforcement officials for answers.
Judy Collins, whose brother is a patient at Pinelake but was unharmed, said that there was “a lot of crying and praying” going on.
Her daughter, Ann Holder, said she was anxious to speak to her uncle. Like so many, she couldn’t make sense of what happened.
“It’s just such a tragedy,” she said.
Some family members of several residents of Pinelake went directly to the facility shortly after police reopened Pinehurst Avenue, hoping to see their loved ones. They were turned away and told to go to the First Baptist Church in Carthage where a crisis intervention team was set up.
Easter and Frances Butler and their husbands drove over from Troy to check on their 90-year-old mother, Ada. They heard about the shooting from another sister who lives in Salisbury.
“We were told that she is OK, and we are relieved,” Easter Butler said as the four stood near the entrance of Pinelake. “We just want to get inside to see her. She needs us.”
Deborah Badurina and her husband, who live in Cameron, came to check on her mother, Irene Cassey, who is 83. She said her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. They found out that she was OK.
“I talked to a nurse and someone checked on her,” she said. “They said she is OK. I just want to talk to her.”
The shootings have rocked the otherwise quiet community to its core.
Foy Jean Wall was sitting in First Baptist Church Sunday morning when the pastor announced that something had occurred at Pinelake.
“I was sitting there and didn’t know what to think,” she said. “You’re just spellbound when you hear something like that.”
Wall, a lifelong resident of Carthage, and the rest of the congregation had been told that a shooting had taken place at Pinelake. She said she went home and cried after the service was over. She said she had never experienced anything like this.
“I’ll soon be 78 years old,” she said, “and I’ve never heard of anything like that happening around here. This is just devastating. I’ve been through some hard times and I’ve seen sad times, but this is just devastating.”
Krueger said at the Monday afternoon press briefing there has been an outpouring of support from across the country.
“We have received e-mails, messages, phone calls collectively throughout the United States,” she said, “from people who are sending their support, their prayers, and their sympathy, offers of help and assistance. And to those people, we especially say thank you and we know today that those people are all members of our small town here in Carthage.”
Gov. Beverly Perdue extended her condolences to the victims Sunday.
“This is a tragedy that’s hard to understand,” she said. “The friends and relatives of the victims have our deepest sympathy and will be in the hearts and prayers of all of us across North Carolina.”
A memorial service has been announced for Thursday, with time and location to be determined.
A community memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. this Saturday, April 4, at Carthage United Methodist Church. The Pinelake community will be having an open memorial service on Sunday, April 19, at 3 p.m. at the facility.
Shooter Was ‘Big Talk, No Show’
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
Robert Stewart used to hunt with the police officer who shot him.
Carthage Police Cpl. Justin Garner and Stewart were both members of the Clay Road Hunt Club, according to club member Tim Allred. He said club members didn’t like Stewart’s hot temper.
“He looked like he was a pretty decent fellow, but he was really high-strung, hot-tempered,” Allred said. “According to what you were doing and what not, he’d let you know if he didn’t like it. He was raised down there toward Vass. That’s where we first came to know him, late ’70s early ’80s.”
Allred’s father had a store halfway between Carthage and Vass, where the family gutter business now keeps a warehouse.
“He and his dad would come up there to the store and buy minnows and such,” Allred said. “Later on, he wanted to get in our hunting club. It started from there.”
Club members recall Stewart as pretty much a loner and say they seldom saw him with his wife, Wanda Luck. The two were married to each other twice, Allred said.
According to records in the county Register of Deeds office, Stewart married Wanda Gay Neal for the first time when she was only 17. Her father had to sign their marriage license giving permission. They divorced within three years, married others, and then remarried in 2002.
That license shows it as his fourth and her fifth wedding.
She worked at the nursing home as a certified nursing assistant, but he did not find his wife as he wandered the halls carrying multiple weapons.
Later, according to call reports obtained from the office of Moore County Sheriff Lane Carter, deputies took her to see her husband in the hospital where he was being treated for wounds.
“When we first met the guy, he looked like he was pretty decent,” Allred said. “Then we started seeing the other side of him. Conversations come about us, he more or less didn’t like the way things were happening. He would voice his opinion, his sayso, how he wasn’t scared of orders and what-not. We confronted him on it and let him know we didn’t appreciate it.”
When confronted, Stewart would back down, Allred said.
“That was the coward side of him,” he said. “Big talk, no show. You know what I mean, just like he walked in on that rest home up there. You think about it. He went in where he knew nobody could whip him. That was the cowardice in him.
“My God, man — walking in a place and shooting 85-, 95-year old people. It leads up 15 years ago when we met him to what he just did. I can see him doing that because he went into a place where he knew he couldn’t be stopped. That’s the type of fellow I read him as.”
Allred saw Stewart as a man who didn’t live up to his front.
“His workmanship: he wouldn’t do good work — know what I mean?” Allred said. “His company was AKS painting, I think. We wouldn’t hire him, though. He was a sloppy painter.”
Allred said Stewart just wasn’t the kind of man to fight it out to the death when Garner confronted him.
“He isn’t one of those ‘gung ho’ guys,” Allred said. “When he got bopped, he cried ‘Oh! I’m hurt! I’ve been shot!’ Those other people didn’t have a chance when he was rampaging.”
Stewart may have meant to kill his estranged wife and then himself, Allred said.
“I’m no mind reader, but if he could have shot her first, he would have finished his life,” he said. “Probably in his mind he didn’t want anybody to have her but himself. Then again, he might have been too damn chicken to kill himself. I don’t think he has the (guts) to kill himself.
“He was shooting in a place where that man knew he could walk in there and whip those people. He was like somebody who walks through a graveyard saying he’s not afraid, then somebody jumps up and says ‘Boo!’ and he runs away. He’s scared. Big talk, but no show. That’s what he did. Bottom line is, I see that boy, the way he pulled that out, as nothing but cowardice.”
‘I Didn’t Want to See No More,’ Says Shaken Witness
BY DEBORAH SALOMON
Twenty years ago, Tommy Salmon, of Salmon Motors in Carthage, sold vehicles to Robert Stewart.
On Sunday, Stewart entered Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center, the facility where Salmon’s 91-year-old mother lives, and allegedly opened fire.
Salmon visits his mother twice daily. He arrived soon after 10 a.m. on Sunday.
“I saw two police cars out front and a Ford Ranger truck with the door open, the windows blown out,” Salmon said. “It was running, and the lights were on.”
The truck may have belonged to visitor Michael Cotten, who was shot in the foot.
Salmon entered the facility by the front door where usually he greets residents in wheelchairs near the door and down the hall.
“First thing I saw was this woman laying back in her chair,” he said. “She had a big hole in her thigh … blood running down everywhere. She was dead.”
An employee who was on the phone shouted at Salmon to get out. He did not hear shots and assumes the rampage had just ended.
“I got out,” he said. “I stayed outside (in the parking lot) for nearly four hours. I didn’t want to see no more.”
Salmon watched as police cars and rescue vehicles swarmed the facility. He was aware that the injured were being carried from the building into ambulances.
He recalls nurses telling him that his mother was all right but he couldn’t be sure.
In the early afternoon, Salmon learned that residents’ families were gathering at the First Baptist Church for reports. He went and listened as names of the injured were read. His mother’s was not on the list.
At the church, Salmon spoke to a familiar Pinelake attendant whom he knows as Martin. (Pinelake does not release names or information about employees). Martin told Salmon that he was pushing Lena Salmon from the dining hall down to her room when the shooting broke out.
Martin quickly pushed the elderly woman into a TV room, closed the door, and ran to do the same for other residents who might otherwise be in the halls — and in danger.
“When I find him, I’m going to do something for him personally,” Salmon said. “He saved my mother.”
Salmon returned to Pinelake about 7 p.m.
“You couldn’t get a parking place,” he said. “The residents had more visitors than they’d had in months. When I went in (in my mind) I still saw the dead woman sitting there.”
Salmon fears the image will remain with him forever.
To his knowledge, his mother still doesn’t know the cause of the commotion.
“If Mama knew, she’d be scared to death,” he said. “But she’s sharp as a tack. She’ll find out.”
Salmon is horrified at the rampaging shooter’s targets.
“You wouldn’t think about somebody going to a nursing home,” he said, “and doing harm.”
As for the alleged shooter, Salmon said, “At first his name didn’t ring a bell.
I hadn’t seen him in 20 years — a great big guy with a beard. I just can’t imagine someone like him doing that.”
Back then, Salmon said, “He was an A-1 customer, never late on a payment, a good man.”
Although the event will go down as a dark chapter in Moore County history, Salmon doesn’t see a long-term effect on the community.
“How often does this happen?” he said. “After a while, it shouldn’t bother too much.”
Chief Praises Officer for ‘Heroic Actions’
BY JOHN KRAHNERT III and JOHN CHAPPELL
Carthage police officer Justin Garner has been hailed as a hero for single-handedly putting an end to gunman Robert Stewart’s rampage Sunday at Pinelake.
Garner was out on a routine patrol and entered the facility alone, Police Chief Chris McKenzie said during a news conference Monday.
Garner shot Stewart in the upper chest with his department-issued .40-caliber Glock pistol, and in turn suffered three pellet wounds, presumably from a shotgun, to the left foot and calf.
McKenzie praised the work of Garner in stopping Stewart’s rampage, calling what he did “heroic.”
By rushing into the building alone and hunting down the killer, McKenzie believes Garner prevented the loss of more lives.
“I’m unbelievably proud, not only to be his police chief, but to be a fellow officer,” he said. “Whether or not he realizes it now, he will hopefully someday realize how many lives he actually saved.”
Garner, 25, is a decorated four-year veteran of the Carthage Police Department. He has previously received the department’s “Officer of the Year” award.
Tim Allred, a member of the Clay Road Hunt Club, said he was not surprised by Garner’s actions. Garner is a member of the club. Stewart also once belonged to that club.
“We have known Justin all our lives,” Allred said. “Facing that shotgun took a lot. Anybody can say they can do it, but to do it is a different thing.”
Allred praised Garner’s restraint in the face of fire as well as his bravery.
“I am glad he didn’t kill him,” Allred said. “On Justin’s point, he saw enough when he went in there. He has to live with what he saw. He doesn’t need any more to have to live with, so I am glad he didn’t kill Robert.”
Families of the victims will have their day in court as a result.
“They deserve to see (Stewart) face to face and say what they want to say,” Allred said. “He will have to face them and realize what he did, unless he is coldhearted. He might be. There is chicken in him. You will see that come out.”
When asked by the media why Garner went into the building alone, McKenzie said there are certain situations when multiple lives are at stake where an officer is trained to do what he can to stop it, even if it means sacrificing his life.
“These men and women take an oath to protect lives,” he said.
Victims Come From Varied Backgrounds
BY FAYE DASEN, TOM EMBREY and DEBORAH SALOMON
Jerry Y. Avant
Jerry Avant’s career choices show how much he enjoyed helping people.
A former Rockingham resident, Avant spent 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, came back to Sandhills Community College to earn a nursing degree to become an LPN and was about to take the examination to receive his license as a registered nurse. He was 39.
He and his fiancee, Jill DeGarmo, lived in Carthage. He attended Cornerstone Baptist Church.
Louise DeKler was 98. Up until she had a stroke at the age of 94, she had lived on her own in a New Jersey apartment.
She came to live at Tara Plantation, an assisted living facility in Carthage, in order to be closer to her daughter. She enjoyed bingo and doing puzzles. After a second stroke just before she turned 98, DeKler agreed to go temporarily to Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center to recover. Funeral services will be held in New Jersey.
Lillian N. Dunn
Lillian Nall Dunn, 86, was a Moore County native, known for her kind heart and sweet disposition.
She was a homemaker who shunned the spotlight. She enjoyed canning fruits and vegetables, cooking for her family, quilting, frequenting yard sales and gardening.
The widow of Archie Dunn, she is survived by a son, two daughters, and several grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. She had worked for the now-closed textile mill in Robbins.
Tessie Garner, 75, had a twin sister, Dessie, who died recently.
Tessie Garner is remembered by relative Brenda Powers as being the consummate homemaker who sent out elaborate Christmas baskets filled with “goodies I didn’t know existed.”
Powers describes Garner and her family as “all-round good people. You couldn’t ask for better country people.”
Surviving Garner are two sisters, three daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
John W. Goldston
John Walter Goldston, 78, grew up in Chatham County.
He had been living at Tara Plantation in Carthage after suffering several debilitating strokes. He transferred to Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation in January.
Known as “Sonny,” Goldston was a son of the late Walter H. and Irene (Brower) Goldston. He was retired and a member of Tyson Creek Baptist Church.
He was said to have enjoyed putting puzzles together and rooting for the Carolina Tar Heels.
He is survived by one daughter; three sons; one sister; 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Bessie Hedrick, 78, who was from Siler City, suffered from Parkinson’s disease, along with several other debilitating illnesses.
Born April 15, 1930, in Person County, she was a daughter of Roy Frank and Annie “Brooks” Hedrick.
She attended UNC Greensboro and earned an associate degree in human services from Sandhills Community College. The mother of five ran a beauty shop, sold insurance and taught classes at a cosmetology school in Greensboro.
She was also a teacher at Chatham Trades, a rehabilitation program in Siler City for adults with developmental disabilities.
Hedrick also enjoyed traveling. A member of First Baptist Church, Siler City, she enjoyed singing in the choir.
Eleanor Clapp, of Siler City, Hedrick’s sister, said that while she was “stunned” by the shooting, she wanted to think about her sister’s death in a more positive way.
“She loved doing things for other people,” she said. “That was her loving nature.”
Hedrick, whose father once served as mayor of Siler City, was described by her sister, Eleanor Clapp, as a “dye-in-the-wool Democrat.” She was active in local politics and at one time served on the Chatham County Democratic Party’s executive committee.
“She really did care for a lot of people and a lot of people cared for her,” Clapp said.
She is survived by three daughters; two sons; one sister; two grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Margaret P. Johnson
Margaret Peoples Johnson, 89, was originally from Guilford County.
She and her family operated a small farm in Silk Hope, a little community in Chatham County, and she lived in Sanford prior to moving to Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center.
A daughter of the late James Henry and Hannah (Paschal) Peoples, Johnson was a homemaker. She was a member of Sapling Ridge United Methodist Church and the Alpha and Sunshine Sunday School class.
She is survived by one son; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Her granddaughter, Tammy Morris, who lives in Chatham County, said that her grandmother was a “wonderful woman.”
Jesse Musser, 88, was the eldest of nine children, who looked up to him as a family leader, according to his brother, Ernest Musser, of West Virginia.
He was a railroad man for 40 years, a machinist who worked for several railroads in Virginia and West Virginia. He loved to hunt and fish as a young man.
Musser and Melba, his wife of 66 years, retired to Aberdeen to live with their daughter. He entered Pinelake earlier this year; his wife, who has Alzheimer’s disease, joined him two weeks before the shooting.
Musser’s brother said Melba believes her husband died in his sleep.
Pinelake Residents, Family Members Share Stories of Surviving Rampage
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
Robbins Town Commissioner Mark Garner rushed to Pinelake Sunday morning as soon as he heard about the shootings.
His father, Arnold Garner, is a resident there, and Garner worried about him.
The place was under lockdown, Garner says. He was told to go to First Baptist Church where officials would be meeting with family members.
Names of victims were read, but Arnold Garner’s was not among them.
“He was all right,” Garner says. “He wasn’t hurt.”
On Monday, Garner and his sister Beth Hall were back at Pinelake to have supper with their dad and hear firsthand what he’d heard and seen.
“He heard a shotgun blast go off in the hallway right outside his room,” Garner said, as his father nodded. “Then he saw the gunman, but there was a medicine cart parked in the hallway right outside the door to his room.”
Arnold Garner told his son that cart may have saved his life.
“If it hadn’t been there, he would probably have shot me,” he said. “Later, a nurse came in the room and got my roommate out of bed and took him into the bathroom.”
The room was shared by a newer resident, and Garner would have been more difficult to move, according to Mark Garner.
“Dad could hear the shotgun being fired,” he said. “He saw him go past his room.”
Nurses and other workers were trying to get as many patients as they could to safer spots like the bathrooms. One nurse, Jerry Avant, lost his own life helping others, staff members said.
On Monday, things seemed back to normal at Pinelake. Hallways and dining areas had the usual visitors. Outside, things were different. A vacant lot across the street was crowded with media trucks and cameras with long lenses peered over at Pinelake as television newscasters reported. At the parking lot entrances, N.C. Highway Patrol officers were screening visitors and blocking access to news media.
However, relatives and friends were coming and going in and out as usual, while an unusual number of flowers flowed in.
“We have had orders from all over the country,” said one florist, making deliveries from Robbins that were not designated for any particular resident but just for Pinelake. Other arrangements were being sent by families to their loved ones.
Garner and his sister are frequent visitors and say Pinelake is a friendly place they consider still to be a safe refuge for their father.
Arnold Garner smiled broadly as he ate his supper, listening and laughing heartily at jokes but saying little.
Deborah Badurina, of Cameron, whose 83-year-old mother is a patient at Pinelake, said she has no plans to move her mother to another nursing home.
Her father, who died in June from Parkinson’s disease, was also a resident at Pinelake.
“I am very high on this place,” she said. “She’s been here a year. They are very heavily staffed. It is a good place.”
Peggy Dowd feels the same way about Pinelake. She said a worker saved her cousin’s life by pushing him into a room and closing a door when the shooting started. Her cousin had suffered a massive stroke and is in a wheelchair.
She said the shooting has not shaken her confidence in Pinelake. She wants to move the brother of her cousin to the facility.
“This is terrible,” she said. “But this is one of those things that happens. It could have happened anywhere.”
911 Center Flooded With Calls
BY DAVID SINCLAIR
The county’s 911 center was flooded with calls Sunday morning from frantic staff members and some residents of Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage — including at least two people who had been shot.
The calls started coming in shortly after 10 a.m. when Robert Stewart allegedly entered the nursing home armed with several guns, including a rifle and shotgun, and started shooting. The county released tapes of the calls Monday.
“There’s a man in here with double-barreled shotgun shooting people,” one woman caller said. “A white man with a beard.”
In another call, a woman told dispatchers that at least one man was wounded in the shoulder. “Keep everybody secure,” the dispatcher said.
Dispatchers reassured the callers that police and ambulances were on the way to the nursing home.
Another unidentified man said very calmly to a dispatcher, “Y’all need to get on over here. I’ve been shot. … I’ve already been shot.”
The man possibly could be Michael Cotten, who was shot in the parking lot as he got out of his car. The Pilot was unable to reach him for comment.
Another woman, who is a resident of the nursing home, called to report the shooting.
“Please come to Pinelake Nursing Home,” she said. “Someone is over here shooting. … I am hid in my bathroom.”
Carthage police officer Justin Garner was the first law-enforcement officer to arrive on scene. Dispatchers told him that the subject was seen near the front of the building.
He entered the building to search for the gunman.
“Shots fired, subject is down,” Garner tells the dispatcher.
“Have you located the shooter,” the dispatcher asks.
“Ten-four, he’s down, Central,” Garner replies. “He’s been shot. I’ve been shot in the foot. … We need ambulances at Pinelake.”
As two sheriff’s deputies arrive on the scene, the dispatcher asks the officer where he is located in the building.
“I am in back of the building with the suspect,” he replies.
A short time later as other law enforcement officers were given the go-ahead to enter the building, another officer tells 911 dispatchers that he needs all available units in that area to come to the nursing home to secure the location.
“I need them now.”
Practice and Preparedness Help Hospital Cope With ‘Stressful Day’
BY FLORENCE GILKESON
While law enforcement officers and Pinelake officials were frantically covering the Sunday morning tragedy in Carthage, an intense drama was playing out in the hospital emergency room in Pinehurst.
Once the initial 911 call was dispatched, the ER at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst was the first entity notified to prepare for a high-priority emergency.
As soon as 911 was called, the hospital began preparing for the emergency, according to Dr. Matt Harmody, the ER physician in charge of the scene.
“The process doesn’t start when the patient arrives,” he said. “The process starts before the patient gets here.”
Two patients were obviously in very critical condition and were immediately transferred to operating rooms. The other four were treated by ER physicians.
In the meantime the entire hospital was placed in lockdown mode and no one was allowed entry except specified law enforcement and medical personnel.
Stuart Voelpel, FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital president, calls this standard procedure to ensure the health and safety of patients and staff. The lockdown continued for several hours until law enforcement officers were satisfied that the shootings at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center in Carthage represented an isolated incident and there was little likelihood of further injury. At that point, security was relaxed and authorized visitors were again permitted into hospital facilities.
However, a secured perimeter around the ER was retained. Voelpel said that extra security was maintained until late afternoon when the suspected assailant, Robert Kenneth Stewart, was transferred to another part of the hospital. Voelpel said Stewart spent Sunday night at the hospital and was discharged into the sheriff'’s custody Monday morning, when he was transferred to the maximum-security Central Prison in Raleigh.
Stewart was kept in an isolated area, where a deputy sheriff was on duty until the prisoner was transferred.
“Our staff responded admirably and did a wonderful job,” Voelpel said, adding that he was impressed with their commitment and with the way in which the special training had worked.
On Monday the staff underwent some debriefing, and counseling sessions were scheduled.
“Sunday was a very stressful day,” Voepel said. “Unfortunately, nothing could be done to save the nurse and the one elderly person who died here.”
Harmody says the hospital’s code triage policy worked perfectly and proved the quality of personnel and the value of the periodic training required to prepare hospital professionals to handle such emergencies.
“If you were a casual observer, you would have been surprised at how calmly and efficiently our staff performed Sunday,” he said.
Harmody, who has been with FirstHealth since 2001, credits law enforcement officials working at the scene, paramedics and other professionals for helping the hospital staff to accomplish this goal.
“We train and practice for just such an emergency, but we always hope we won’t ever have to put that training and practice to use,” he said.
Harmody also praised the hospital staff for an exceptionally high quality of teamwork, in which the staff puts to use special skills and training.
“It’s really eye-opening that anything like this could happen here, but it’s good that we were prepared to handle it,” Harmody said. “The patients didn’t have to be flown to a larger hospital.”
Harmody said Stewart was treated as needed in the same way that the other patients were treated. The only difference was the security detail on duty throughout his stay at the hospital.
“It was very tragic, and I certainly have a lot of sympathy for everyone involved,” Harmody said.
Voelpel made rounds of his own Monday morning and visited the staff, including the personnel who worked in the unit where Stewart was kept overnight.
“They have a lot of feelings, especially for the young nurse,” he said. “They worked so long and so hard to save him. When you lose someone that young, it really does stay with you, and some are struggling over his loss."
The nurse was 39-year old Jerry Avant.
Fielding Media Calls
Hospital public relations personnel were also called into special duty Sunday and spent much of the day fielding calls and visits from the media.
One television crew had a mishap in the parking lot area outside the emergency room Sunday afternoon. Emily Sloan with the public relations staff said the TV vehicle was being driven beneath a metal bar spanning the driveway into the ER entrance and, too late, the driver realized there was insufficient clearance for the satellite dish atop the vehicle. The impact of the strike knocked the satellite dish off the truck.
Sloan said no one was injured and hospital property was not damaged. The station was not identified.
Sloan says several television stations sent crews to the ER Sunday. TV crews carried out on-camera interviews on the hospital campus and also photographed buildings and scenes.
Sloan and Public Relations Director Gretchen Kelly took turns answering calls from the media, including several calls from overseas. Among the callers were reporters from the BBC, a London television station, an Australian station, Associated Press, and the Wall Street Journal. Sloan says she has no idea how many calls were handled on Sunday.
The lockdown, which lasted little more than two hours for the entire hospital, is a procedure designed to control the site until an emergency subsides. It means that all entrance points are locked, and, in this case, security was stationed at those points.
Under the fire code, a lockdown does not mean that no one can leave the facility, but exit is discouraged and carefully monitored when allowed.
Rumors that a SWAT team was called were correct but only in the sense that a call was made, according to another hospital source. The team was not needed and the call was dropped.
Media Swoop in on Moore County From Far and Wide
BY LAURA EDDY
State and national media crews descended on Carthage Sunday after a lone gunmen opened fire at a nursing home, killing eight people and wounding three.
More than 13 television satellite and news trucks jammed the parking lot at the Carthage Town Hall Sunday and Monday when press briefings were held in the Fire Department. The meeting room was packed with 100 or so reporters from every imaginable media outlet.
Many have been doing “live shots” from the Town Hall on various morning and evening newscasts.
Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie has become the face of the tragedy as the main speaker at many of the news conferences that were carried live on several television stations.
Print and broadcast journalists have scoured the Carthage area interviewing family members of the victims and other residents of Pinelake who survived the ordeal, as well as local residents who may or may not have any connection to the nursing home.
In addition to the major North Carolina daily newspapers, The New York Times has covered the tragedy. Stories have also appeared on television stations all over the state, as well as CNN, BBC, MSNBC, Fox News and ABC.
On Monday, the shooting was a top story on Google News. Most of the articles called the crime a “rampage,” a word that’s been in the U.S. news more often than usual lately.
Fox News concluded its article with mention of the other crimes, writing: “Sunday’s rampage happened just weeks after a man killed 10 people, including his mother and several other relatives, in the worst mass shooting in Alabama history March 10. On March 11, a teen killed 12 people at his former high school in Germany.”
MSNBC concluded its story with the same reference to the shootings on March 10 and 11.
Following the Monday morning media briefing at the Fire Department, Carthage Town Manager Carol Sparks reflected the feeling of many people in Carthage.
“This just doesn’t happen in Carthage,” she said. “Everyone is in a state of shock.”
It Doesn’t Happen Here — But It Did
BY JIM DODSON
The story is so familiar in America these days that it’s almost a cliché. Until it happens in your hometown.
“Whatever sense of security we once enjoyed here is probably temporarily shattered,” said Carthage native and Chief of Police Chris McKenzie, settling into his office chair only moments after providing the first bare-bones details of the horrific Sunday-morning shooting spree that left eight dead and three wounded at the Pinelake Rehab Center and Nursing Home.
Beginning at 10 o’clock Monday morning, facing a crush of local, state and national media in a makeshift studio at Town Hall, the chief had been peppered for more than half an hour with a barrage of sharp questions about the shooter and his possible motives.
He’d handled himself well, refusing to say much pending the investigation. Then he invited me and another reporter from The Pilot into his office for a chat.
“This place really is Mayberry,” McKenzie said as he sat down in his office chair, showing perhaps the first signs of the toll the tragedy had taken on him by thoughtfully massaging his eyes. “It’s a historic little town where everybody knows everybody. Things like this just don’t happen here — that’s what most folks would say. But it did. And many of us won’t forget what we witnessed yesterday morning. I knew half the faces and names over there. This just touches everybody.”
Outside McKenzie’s office, where more than a dozen satellite dishes were already pumping the news of America’s latest shooter rampage to TV sets across the planet, the media pack fanned out in the general direction of Carthage’s courthouse square, racing to find some local color and perspective.
“Which way, exactly, is the center of town?” a Charlotte-based cable reporter asked me with a frantic edge in her voice as I wandered back to my car, heading off to get my hair cut and see if my regular barber Kevin Cagle had indeed been touched by the senseless tragedy. I gave the young woman directions and watched her bolt for her SUV with her photographer close behind. At least he thought to turn and wave thanks.
Up at DAK’s Office Furniture, where I stopped briefly to hunt for a used computer table, manager Jay Smith was shaking his head, bracing for Carthage’s unwanted exposure to the world.
“Obviously it’s what people have been talking about ever since it happened,” he said. “We all probably knew somebody involved. I went to school with the girl who was the fiancee of the nurse who was killed. But what is there really more to say? This is a horrible, unfortunate tragedy that can happen anywhere. My fear is these TV reporters will make us look like a bunch of gun-toting fools.”
Employee Terry Taylor solemnly nodded.
“We all know Justin, too. He’s the real hero in this thing,” he said — meaning Justin Garner, the lone Carthage officer on duty on Sunday morning who answered the 911 call and brought down the alleged suspect, Stewart, with a single shot to the chest. Garner suffered three wounds to his lower leg and foot, according to early reports.
“Justin’s a good shot; I know because I hunt with him,” provided Lee Chriscoe at City Barbershop, when I ducked in to see if his partner Kevin was available for a haircut. Kevin had the day off, and I turned out to be the third media type to wander into the barbershop in the past 20 minutes.
“I guess at this point they’re looking for any kind of information about this thing,” Chriscoe said. “Since the police aren’t giving out details yet, you can only go on what people are saying.”
The barber told me he’d heard through a mutual friend that his hunting buddy, however, was at home resting and doing O.K.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all to think he would go in there alone,” Chriscoe added. “That’s just the kind of guy he is. No telling how many lives Justin saved.”
‘Still So Fresh’
I walked several blocks over to the Moore Coffee Company to get a cup and found two print reporters and a photographer already hanging out there. One had just interviewed by phone a local man named Mike who’d been at Pinelake visiting his grandmother when the shooting broke out.
“Mike and his kids were in the room next door to where the man shot his first victim,” explained owner Julie Starling. “They could hear everything that was going on. His son blocked the door and later followed the shooter, directing the officer to where he was.”
I asked her if her friend Mike — who’d gone home — might be willing to share his story with a reporter from The Pilot, the hometown paper.
“I think he doesn’t want to say anymore,” she said. “This thing is still so fresh. He came in here earlier just looking for coffee and a friend, not to speak to reporters. His kids heard the whole thing happen. You can imagine how shaken up he is by all of this.”
I could indeed. So for the balance of the morning, I just walked around town doing what any other local might be doing on a sunny Monday morning in the county seat. I checked out a used garden truck, visited the hardware store, chatted with a group of men over hot dogs at Ronnie’s Chuck Wagon, and stepped into the bank to speak with a lady I know there. It turned out her mother-in-law resides at Pinelake and was shaken up but fortunately unharmed.
By the end of my afternoon in Carthage, largely through word of mouth, I’d learned that nurse Jerry Avant was a recent graduate of Sandhills Community College’s Licensed Practical Nursing program, top of his class and the only male to make it through the rigorous program. He’d received an award for his care of the elderly, was already taking classes toward his registered nurse degree, and was planning to get married this summer.
“Jerry was the nicest young man you ever saw,” a woman named Louise told me outside The Pilot’s Carthage office, insisting that I not use her last name. “I’ve heard from an administrator that he personally saved 30 people by locking them safely in their rooms before he was shot and killed. He put his body in front of others — gave his life for his patients. If that’s not a hero, I don’t know what is.”
By early afternoon, more details of what transpired were finally beginning to filter out. Much of what I’d heard on the street turned out to be remarkably accurate. As I was heading back to my car, a print reporter from Fayetteville stopped me and said, “These are the sweetest people I’ve ever interviewed. You hate that something like this happens anywhere, but especially here.”
“It’s the real Mayberry,” I said.
By evening, Carthage’s unwanted day in the national spotlight was drawing to a close. Many of the satellite trucks were gone.
At home, I turned on CNN and heard Anderson Cooper talking about “the horror and terror in a small Southern town,” saw footage of people I’d spoken to and a couple of folks I recognized, heard tales of Officer Garner’s bravery, and watched an interview with Jerry Avant’s father. The next story in the queue was about a naked man running through the streets of Paris carrying a long pole. I turned off the TV and looked at the notes from my walkabout in Carthage. The shock was wearing off. Almost all the details were now known about the shooter, his pathetic motives, his gentle victims.
Sorrow, someone said, is sacred ground. The last voice I heard in my head was the first one I’d heard that morning. It belonged to Chief McKenzie.
“Your hometown is where everybody takes care of each other,” he told me with a direct and dignified calmness. “We’ll rely on faith and community to get through this difficult time. Tomorrow will be better, and little by little, we’ll all get through this together.”