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Pinelake at 10: A Decade in the Shadow of North Carolina's Deadliest Mass Shooting

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Pinelake at 10

Editor’s Note: Friday marked the 10-year anniversary of the mass shooting at a Carthage nursing home that claimed eight lives. It was stopped by a single young officer who rushed in to confront the shooter, an act that now stands as standard training for officers nationwide. Ten years later, the Pinelake shooting remains the state’s deadliest such incident. And yet, for its impact on Moore County, Carthage — the nation, the anniversary passed largely unmarked and unmentioned.

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ON A WINDY Sunday morning in March 2009, a burly house painter with a messy beard walked into a Carthage nursing home and fatally shot eight people.

Many residents of rural Moore County were still in church when Robert Stewart arrived at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation, a 110-bed facility specializing in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. He went there shortly after 10 a.m. in search of his estranged wife Wanda Neal, a nursing assistant who, unknown to Stewart, had been assigned that morning to the facility’s passcode-locked Alzheimer’s ward.

His rampage began in the parking lot. Armed with a .22 caliber hunting rifle, Stewart shot through the rear window of Neal’s unoccupied PT Cruiser before opening fire on a Ford pickup truck near the nursing home’s entrance. Michael Cotten was stepping out of the truck when a bullet pierced his left shoulder. He ran inside the building and called 911.

“I told them there was a guy out there shooting,” Cotten said in an interview earlier this month. “It wasn’t long after that, as I went further into the facility (to hide), that we realized he was coming in.”

Michael Cotten

Michael Cotten on March 22, 2019.

Stewart placed the rifle on the roof of his Jeep Cherokee, swapping the weapon for a 12-gauge pump shotgun. With the shotgun in hand and two other firearms — a 357-caliber revolver and a semi-automatic pistol — holstered around the waist of his overalls, Stewart walked into the main hall of the nursing home, the area where his wife would normally be working, and began shooting indiscriminately at elderly residents.

Jerry Avant Jr., a nurse, is believed to have been gunned down while attempting to move patients out of Stewart’s path. The 38-year-old had served 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard before receiving a nursing degree from Sandhills Community College, which would later establish a scholarship in his memory.

He was engaged to Jill DeGarmo, a fellow Pinelake employee who escaped the rampage without injury. In a television interview the next day, DeGarmo said she found her fiancé “laying on the floor bleeding” near shards of glass from a broken window.

An autopsy report showed that Avant was shot twice from a distance and once at close range. He died on an operating table at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst.

Louise DeKler, 98, was the oldest victim. The lively nonagenarian had moved to Carthage four years earlier to be closer to her daughter. She previously lived alone at an apartment complex in New Jersey, not far from the Atlantic City casinos where she loved to play double slots.

Dr. Deborah Raddisch, the state’s chief medical examiner, said DeKler was shot in her left thigh and pelvis. The wounds, Raddisch said, caused “a little bit of blood” to travel to DeKler’s spine and the base of her brain. She remains the oldest American known to have died in a mass shooting, according to The Washington Post.

Jerry Avant and Louise DeKler

Jerry Avant Jr., left, and Louise DeKler.

Lillian Dunn, 86, was a former employee of the defunct Milliken textile plant in Robbins. Her hobbies included making quilts and cooking with vegetables that she grew herself and canned. After being shot twice in her wheelchair, Dunn was found slumped over in a red-and-white dress that she liked to wear on Sundays.

Tessie Garner, 76, was known for assembling beautiful Christmas baskets. She was shot once, with the blast injuring multiple organs before exiting through her back. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.

John Goldston, 78, had 14 grandchildren, enjoyed jigsaw puzzles and was a loyal fan of the Carolina Tar Heels. He was shot from less than two feet away.

Bessie Hedrick, 78, once owned a beauty shop and was, as her sister Elenor Clapp put it, a “dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.” She was shot from at least six feet away.

Before moving to Pinelake, Margaret Johnson, 89, ran a small farm with her family in Silk Hope. She died after being shot in her left pelvis at close range.

Jesse Musser, 88, was a retired railroad machinist who spent more than 40 years fixing trains in Virginia and West Virginia. He was shot in the back while waiting to visit his wife, a fellow resident with Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Thomas Clark of the state Medical Examiner’s Office said Musser’s heart was “shredded” by the blast. Melba Musser was told her husband died in his sleep.

JUSTIN GARNER was the only Carthage police officer on duty when the call came in. It was not unusual, he said, to have just one officer patrolling the county seat on a Sunday morning.

“It was a small town,” Garner said in a recent interview.

Local officers at the time did not carry rifles or ballistic armor in their vehicles. The Carthage Police Department had no official protocol for responding to active shooter events.

Garner, then 25 years old, did not wait for backup when he arrived at the nursing home. He went alone into the building’s lobby, where he saw elderly patients doddering amid shell casings and spattered blood.

“When I walked through the front door, there were people wandering around like it was just another morning. To my left was a lady who had been shot in her wheelchair. There were like five or six people standing behind her, not saying a word. They didn’t have a clue what was going on.”

He made his way through the main corridor, past the motionless bodies of victims in beds and wheelchairs. Rounding a corner, he found the 380-pound shooter reloading his shotgun.

“There wasn’t any missing him,” Garner said. “He took up the whole frame of the hallway.”

Garner repeatedly ordered the man to drop his gun. Instead, Stewart leveled his weapon. Garner steadied his service pistol.

Years of hunting deer with his father had made Garner a decent marksman. Stewart was also a hunter. The two were once members of the same hunting club.

It was a small town.

The men fired almost simultaneously. Lead pellets from a ricochet struck Garner’s leg and foot. Stewart, shot in the chest by a bullet from Garner’s .40-caliber Glock pistol, fell to the ground.

Garner restrained Stewart by linking two pairs of handcuffs behind the obese gunman’s back. Reinforcements from every police department in Moore County were approaching the nursing home when Garner’s voice beamed over the radio: “The suspect is down.”

Stewart and Garner were both taken to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital for treatment. Within hours, they would be two of the most talked-about men in the country.

National news outfits descended on Carthage to cover the rampage. During a hastily organized press conference at the Carthage Fire Department, Police Chief Chris McKenzie tallied the morning’s violence: eight dead, three injured, two still hospitalized.

“If Justin hadn’t gone in when he did, there would have been many more killed,” McKenzie later told reporters. “I don’t know if he will ever know how many lives he saved.”

Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie

Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie shares details about the shooting during a press conference. 

Over the next few days, chyrons praising the “Hero Cop” from Carthage were a common sight on cable news. Garner was still in the hospital when the interview requests started pouring in.

“The attention was overwhelming,” he said. “There was all this pressure.”

On April 3, the national media moved on. Another shooting rampage had left 14 people dead at the Binghamton American Civic Association building in New York. The perpetrator, like more than half of all mass shooters, died at the scene.

Stewart expected a similar fate. While lying in handcuffs on the floor of the bloody hallway, he allegedly begged Garner to kill him.

GARNER RECEIVED awards from the National Tactical Officers Association and the American Police Hall of Fame. He was recognized on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and interviewed alongside McKenzie on “The Today Show” in New York.

Producers for “Dr. Phil” and “Geraldo at Large” tried to arrange interviews with the officers, but McKenzie turned down their requests. The publicity, he said at the time, was beginning to feel disrespectful to the victims.

Gov. Bev Perdue authorized more than $27,000 in payments to the victims’ estates through the North Carolina Victim Compensation Fund. The money was meant to offset costs associated with the funerals, which were delayed until the autopsies could be conducted.

Stewart was sent to Central Prison in Raleigh, where he spent the next two years awaiting trial. Perhaps unaware he had been relocated or not sure of the prison’s address, people began sending angry letters meant for Stewart to the Carthage Police Department. McKenzie had been destroying the hate mail until a judge ordered him to preserve it for evidence.

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STEWART'S TRIAL began July 2, 2011. He faced eight counts of first-degree murder, with each charge carrying a possibility of the death penalty.

Fearing the extensive media coverage had stoked bias among potential jurors in Moore County, Stewart’s court-appointed defense counsel persuaded Judge James Webb to move jury selection to Stanly County. More than 190 people were summoned for jury duty as part of the selection process, which required candidates to be interviewed about their beliefs on capital punishment.

In death-punishable cases, members of the jury cannot have strong opinions about the death penalty. People with moral objections to the death penalty are excused. So are those who believe death should always be imposed in capital cases.

It took weeks to find 12 suitable jurors and four alternates. They were bused in each day from Albemarle while the trial was underway at the courthouse in downtown Carthage, less than two miles from the site of the shooting.

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Robert Stewart appears in court. 

Stewart admitted to the slayings in court, but said he was not guilty of the charges. His lawyers, Jonathon Megerian and Franklin Wells, claimed large doses of Ambien, a popular sleep aid, mixed with Xanax and the antidepressant Lexapro, had caused Stewart to enter a state of “automatism.”

Stewart, his lawyers argued, was essentially sleepwalking when he carried out the rampage, and he could not be held criminally responsible for his actions.

The prosecution team, led by assistant district attorney Peter Strickland, contended the attack was premeditated. Prosecutors pointed to an apparent suicide note Stewart had written days before the shooting as proof he knew what he was doing. They argued that Stewart completed multiple complex actions — gathering the four firearms, driving to the nursing home — that showed malice aforethought.

“Medication is not what caused this,” Strickland told the jury.

Maureen Krueger, the district attorney for Moore County, recused herself from the proceedings to avoid a potential conflict of interest stemming from an assault case she had worked on while in private practice. Stewart had accused his mother, who was represented at the time by Krueger, of assaulting him. Krueger negotiated a plea for the mother, who denied her son’s allegations.

NEW DETAILS about Stewart emerged when Neal, his estranged wife, testified about the couple’s life before the shooting.

It was their second marriage to one another. They first wed when Neal was only 17. Her father had to sign the marriage license then. The union ended after three years, but the two reconnected decades later during her father’s funeral. They remarried in 2002.

The couple lived outside Robbins, about 20 minutes from the nursing home. Stewart owned multiple guns, all obtained legally, and used empty barrels in the yard for target practice. He was a heavy drinker, Neal said.

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A barrel Robert Stewart used for target practice outside his home near Robbins. 

She said Stewart sank into a depression after losing his house-painting business. He filed for bankruptcy, Neal said, and the couple struggled to make ends meet.

Their financial situation improved somewhat after Stewart began receiving disability benefits for an injury he suffered years earlier. According to Neal, the injury happened when a mule fell on Stewart’s legs.

In her testimony, Neal described her second marriage to Stewart as “good and bad.” She said Stewart would give a “certain look” when he was angry. The look scared her, she said.

Brian Pilsen, Neal’s son from a previous marriage, testified that he once witnessed Stewart hitting his mother. An ex-wife remembered Stewart having “violent tendencies.”

He was described as “hot-tempered” by Tim Allred, an acquaintance from Stewart’s hunting club. In an earlier interview with The Pilot, Allred called Stewart a “coward” who would initiate disputes with fellow club members only to retreat from confrontation.

“Big talk, no show,” Allred said. “You know what I mean? Just like he walked in on that rest home up there. He went in where he knew nobody could whip him. That was the cowardice in him.”

Neal left Stewart two weeks before the shooting. Prosecutors said he went to the nursing home to kill her in retaliation for leaving him, but he was unable to gain entry to the passcode-protected Alzheimer’s unit where she was hiding in a bathroom.

Neal said she blamed herself for Stewart’s actions. The guilt, she said, drove her to attempt suicide by overdosing on prescription medication before the trial.

“I wanted all this to end,” she said. “I know a lot of the family members hold everything against me. I understand, and I can’t take it no more.”

The shattered rear window of Neal's PT Cruiser

The shattered rear window of Neal's PT Cruiser.

THE PROCEEDINGS dragged on for five weeks.

Each day, the victims’ families squeezed into uncomfortable pews for another round of gut-wrenching testimony. Daughters and sons heard grisly findings from their parents’ autopsy reports. Sisters and brothers watched as the guns used to kill their siblings were passed around for examination by the jury.

Long silences are common in superior court. At a typical session, several minutes might pass before a quiet moment is punctured by a cough or the sound of lawyers shuffling paper. But the courtroom rarely fell completely silent during Stewart’s trial. The anguished sobs of grieving family members were almost always audible.

Stewart showed little emotion, even when confronted with impassioned testimony from the victims’ children. He seldom made eye contact with anyone outside his defense team.

Patricia McGraw, a victim witness legal assistant for the prosecution, made pound cake and peach cobbler for the families. In the final weeks of the trial, she ordered customized armbands for the victims’ relatives. The date of the shooting was emblazoned on each white band, along with an all-capitals message: “WE REMEMBER.”

In a recent interview, McGraw, who is now married to the mayor of Carthage, said she will “never forget” the trial.

“It stays with you: the evidence, the testimony, the families — mostly the families.”

A CONTINGENT OF the jury earned a nickname from Judge Webb.

He called them the Smoking Jurors.

The Smoking Jurors scribbled requests for cigarette breaks on slips of paper that were handed to the jury foreman, who delivered the notes to Webb. A sheriff’s deputy was then summoned to stand guard while the Smoking Jurors smoked cigarettes outside the courthouse.

After 10 hours of deliberation and several smoke breaks, the jury found Stewart guilty of eight counts of second-degree murder. He was acquitted of two counts of attempted first-degree murder for shooting Garner and Cotten.

Webb imposed the maximum punishment for each conviction, sentencing Stewart to 179 years behind bars. It was cold comfort to many of the families: they wanted to see Stewart executed.

“We were not happy about the verdict,” Strickland said in an interview earlier this month.

It is possible, he said, that the out-of-town jury was simply eager to bring the ordeal to an end. The verdict was rendered during a rare Saturday session on Labor Day weekend.

Looking back on the case, Strickland said the “brutally of the actions” stands out. Because of the location of their injuries, many of the victims are believed to have died in pain. They might have suffered less had Stewart shot them in the head.

Shortly after the trial, Neal told The Associated Press she was satisfied with the jury’s decision.

“He got what he deserved,” she said. “I hope he rots in hell.”

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STEWART IS CURRENTLY housed at Caswell Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Yanceyville. Prison officials have repeatedly cited him for fighting, possession of weapons and other infractions.

In a handwritten complaint that was recently added to his voluminous case file at the Moore County Clerk of Court’s office, Stewart called his confinement “involuntary servitude.”

He has written many such letters from prison. Susan Hicks, the clerk of court, dutifully adds each new document to Stewart’s file, which is spread across multiple folders in a crowded filing cabinet at the county courthouse.

In 2015, Stewart sent a Freedom of Information Act request for retiring Sheriff Lane Carter’s letter of resignation, along with summaries of “any and all allegations leading to (Carter’s) resignation.” Stewart was building a lawsuit that accused the Moore County Sheriff’s Office of destroying a set of blood and urine samples related to his case.

He was seeking $60 million in damages. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed as frivolous.

Two years later, he requested copies of the indictments he had been served by a grand jury and a copy of the envelope the jury foreman placed the indictments in. Stewart needed the documents, he wrote, to “evaluate my legal situation and prepare a post-conviction petition.”

He submitted a petition in April 2018 for the writ of habeas corpus, a process used to determine if an inmate has been unlawfully imprisoned. Writing in the petition, Stewart claimed the judgment against him should be overturned because the state failed to include his full name in each indictment connected to the shooting.

For precedent, Stewart cited a 1940 case in which the state Supreme Court reversed the judgment against a man whose name was not included in a bill of indictment. In that case, the defendant had been sentenced to 12 months after pleading guilty to owning an illegal slot machine.

In October, Stewart sent a notarized complaint alleging his prison sentence was a “civil rights” violation. He described himself as a “state slave” in a related letter to the Moore County District Attorney’s Office.

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One of several letters Robert Stewart wrote to Tom Embrey, a reporter for The Pilot who died in 2016.

The Pilot was unable to reach Stewart for comment, but last year he corresponded with GQ for an article in which a dozen convicted mass shooters were asked what could have been done to prevent their killing sprees.

Writing to a journalist for the U.K. edition of the magazine, Stewart maintained he had no recollection of his actions. He also wrote of being a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, calling it the “only way the people can keep the government from become [sic] tyrants.”

FRIDAY MARKED the 10th anniversary of the rampage, which remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern North Carolina history.

It is difficult to know what lasting impact, if any, the massacre had. While news of the attack was initially met with sadness and outrage from state lawmakers, no legislation was put forth in response to the shooting.

Kelly Haight, press assistant for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said federal regulations enacted in 2016 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services require nursing homes to have plans in place for “active shooter scenarios,” but the change does not appear to be related to the shooting at Pinelake.

Garner, who now works as a recruiter for the Highway Patrol, said his experience is used as a case study in the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Training program. Instructors sometimes invite him to speak to their classes.

Trooper Justin Garner

Trooper Justin Garner, N.C. State Highway Patrol 

Before the Pinelake massacre, officers responding to mass shootings were trained to cordon off the area and wait for a SWAT team to arrive. Many law enforcement agencies began rethinking their approach after a 2013 study by the FBI found that most mass shootings last only five to eight minutes. Officers across the nation are now expected to follow Garner’s example by moving immediately toward the shooter instead of waiting for backup.

Scot Peterson, an ex-sheriff’s deputy in Florida, was widely condemned last year for standing by while a suspect with an AR-15-style rifle gunned down 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Peterson’s failure to act drew withering criticism from both President Donald J. Trump and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Garner was not so quick to vilify the disgraced deputy. “I can only imagine what he’s feeling now,” he said.

To hear him tell it, Garner simply did what any self-respecting police officer would have done when he entered the nursing home alone to confront Stewart. Garner would have been consumed by guilt, he said, had he stood on the sidelines while innocent people perished.

“I don’t know how a man could live with himself if he didn’t try,” said Garner, who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder in the years following the attack. “Unfortunately, in today’s society, you’ve got to be willing to make that sacrifice.”

Reports of mass shootings in the U.S. have increased dramatically since 2011, the year Stewart was convicted. More than 320 such events were reported last year.

The body counts have grown larger, too. Four of the five deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history happened within the past seven years. A total of 59 people died during the deadliest incident, the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival In Las Vegas.

Still, the toll of Stewart’s rampage remains shocking for Moore County.

According to the State Bureau of Investigation, the county had an annual average of only five murders from 2010 to 2017. The Pinelake massacre accounted for more than half of the county’s record 14 homicides in 2009.

PATRICK MACON, a martial arts instructor from Asheboro, visited Moore County earlier this month to teach a self-defense class on “active-shooter survival.”

The timeliness of the training, Macon said, was a coincidence. He was not aware of the upcoming anniversary of the worst killing spree in the state’s modern history.

Only four women signed up for the free class, which was held at a Southern Pines recreation center less than 12 miles from the site of the rampage. The solemnity of the subject was at odds with the constant cheering and laughter from a volleyball game that was underway at the center.

According to Macon, the first thing a person should do during a shooting is run away from the shooter. Macon told the women to stick close to walls while they flee. This will help minimize their “footprint,” he said, if they are forced to sprint past the perpetrator’s line-of-sight.

If running isn’t an option, Macon told the women they should hide in an empty room, ideally one with furniture that can be used to barricade the door. If hiding isn’t an option, he said they must prepare “to meet aggression with aggression” by improvising weapons from whatever items are within reach.

And if no weapons are available, Macon said the women should attempt to strike the shooter’s head with the heels of their hands. Palm strikes, he said, are preferable to throwing closed-fist punches, which can cause knuckle injury.

The course was modeled after the same three-step strategy the FBI advises civilians to follow during active-shooting events. Run, hide and — as a last resort — fight.

But most of the elderly victims at Pinelake were in wheelchairs or otherwise incapable of running. Their diminished hearing and sight would have made it exceedingly difficult to find a safe place to hide, and they did not have the strength to confront the nearly 400-pound gunman.

Macon said businesses across the state have hired him to provide the active-shooter training to their employees.

“It’s hard to believe we live in a world where these classes are even necessary,” he said.

One of his college classmates can no longer walk because of a gunshot injury she suffered in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Next month marks the 20th anniversary of that shooting.

Though Macon said he was unfamiliar with the 2009 rampage in Carthage, he recalled hearing something recently about a mass shooting that “happened a while ago at a nursing home in the area.”

PINELAKE HEALTH and Rehabilitation is now known as Peak Resources Pinelake. The Charlotte company that owns the nursing home decided to change the facility’s name in the mid-2010s.

In a written statement declining an interview request from The Pilot, a spokeswoman for Peak Resources said the company has no plans to “publicly address the anniversary” of the shooting.

“We feel it is our responsibility to uphold the privacy of those families and employees who prefer to grieve in private,” wrote Mandy Reutter, chief technology officer for Peak Resources. She said the nursing home’s employees “strive to ensure the safety and well-being of each resident under our care.”

“As to the incident of March 29, 2009, we are extremely proud of the staff members, residents and families present at the time and their rapid and diligent response in handling a very unique and difficult situation,” Ruetter wrote. “The event was a very unfortunate incident and all those who were involved have spent the years healing from this experience.”

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Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation changed its name to Peak Resources Pinelake after the rampage.

The company’s decision not to acknowledge the anniversary was unsurprising to Bert Patrick, a former nursing instructor at Sandhills Community College.

“They don’t want anyone talking about it,” she said.

Avant, the slain nurse, was one of Patrick’s students. She believes he died defending vulnerable patients because he “felt a responsibility to care for those people.”

“There was a kindness about him,” she said. “How many men that spent 10 years in the Coast Guard then want to be a nurse at a nursing home?”

Patrick lives in Carthage and is a member of the local historical committee, which runs a small museum in the 200 block of Rockingham Street. Open only on Sundays, the museum contains hundreds of artifacts tied to notable moments in the town’s 243-year history.

There are exhibitions about James Rogers McConnell, a local aviator who died fighting for France before the U.S. entered World War I, and the Tyson & Jones Buggy Co., a carriage manufacturer that set the standard for horse-drawn transportation in the mid-1800s. But visitors will find no mention of the shooting that briefly transformed Carthage into a national cause célèbre.

According to Patrick, the massacre has not been intentionally overlooked by the committee. Still, she acknowledged that the shooting is a complicated topic for the community.

Patrick said her daughter, a musician who “loves Carthage,” has wanted for years to see new information added to the town’s Wikipedia page, which features a prominent section dedicated to the shooting.

Her daughter, she said, doesn’t necessarily want the section to be removed. She simply wants the Wikipedia article to be fleshed out to provide a more balanced summary of the town.

“You type in ‘Carthage’ and that’s what comes up online,” Patrick said.

MAYOR LEE MCGRAW did not realize a decade had passed since the shooting. After being informed of the anniversary, he opened the March 18 meeting of the Carthage Board of Commissioners with a prayer for the victims and their families.

“Time just moves on and we sometimes put bad things behind us to get them out of our memory,” he said during the meeting. “The tragedy touched us very hard. Most of us, one way or another, knew the people or knew the people very well.”

A Carthage native, McGraw was a town commissioner when the shooting happened. He was elected mayor before the trial began in earnest.

“It did change things for the community,” McGraw said in an interview. “And when it happened, people said it’s not going to define us, it’s not who we are.”

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Sculpture at Sandhills Community College dedicated to the victims of the 2009 rampage at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation.

After the board meeting, McGraw asked a representative for Peak Resources Pinelake if the nursing home would be amenable to hosting a brief ceremony in observance of the anniversary. The representative rejected the proposal, citing the corporate owners’ wishes to distance themselves from the shooting.

McGraw considered organizing a moment of silence on town property, but he ultimately decided against it. He also instructed Dorothy Dutton, the town clerk, to remove a message about the anniversary from the town’s monthly newsletter.

McGraw, whose father-in-law is a patient at Peak Resources Pinelake, said he didn’t want to dredge up the massacre without first conferring with residents.

ON FRIDAY MORNING, flags in Moore County were not lowered to half-staff, as they had flown 10 years earlier. The news vans that once filled the parking lot of the Moore County Agricultural Center, the building adjacent to the nursing home, did not return on the anniversary of the shooting.

Gov. Roy Cooper did not tweet about the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s modern history. No statements were issued by U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, Sen. Richard Burr or Sen. Thom Tillis, whose districts include Moore County.

No special service was held at First Baptist Church, the Carthage house of worship where the victims’ families waited anxiously a decade ago for updates about their loved ones — and where many of those same families bonded over meals during Stewart’s trial.

There was no moment of silence at Sandhills Community College, where a sculpture is dedicated to the victims. The piece was unveiled during the 2010 spring commencement ceremony and is located beneath a cluster of trees near the Kennedy Center.

Jordan Cranford, a former student, remembers seeing the sculpture on campus before she graduated in 2012. She was never told what it was commissioned to commemorate. She had not heard about the decade-old massacre at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation.

“I never really knew about it, and I’ve lived here my whole life,” Cranford said.

Judy Woodward, a longtime librarian at the Moore County Public Library in Carthage, can’t recall the last time someone mentioned the shooting.

“Everyone was just appalled when it happened,” she said. “Now people don’t talk about it at all.”

One of the few tributes on Friday came from Krueger, the district attorney. Writing on Facebook about the crime scene, she said the “bloody murder trail was easy to follow but impossible to comprehend.”

“Throughout the nursing home, one violent scene led to another,” Krueger wrote. “The magnitude of the violence revealed itself. Old age had rendered these victims completely defenseless and harmless; feeble in body and mind.”

She added: “When I think of Pinelake, I remember the heroes, the innocent lives that were taken and their families who still live with the grief.”

Cotten, the first victim, is now the local branch director for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

“In some ways it doesn’t feel like 10 years and in other ways it does,” he said. “I feel real fortunate to be here. It could have turned out really differently.”

The bullet from Stewart’s hunting rifle is still lodged in Cotten’s shoulder.


A condensed version of this article appears on the front page of the March 30, 2019 issue of The Pilot under the headline “When Tragedy Hit Home.”

(1) comment

Margaret Doolin

Kudos to Jaymie Baxley for this journalistic gem.

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