CARTHAGE, North Carolina – A gunman barged into a North Carolina nursing home Sunday morning and started "shooting everything," going room to room in a terrifying rampage that killed seven residents — most in their late 80s — and a nurse who cared for them.
Authorities said Robert Stewart also wounded three others, including the Carthage police officer who confronted him in a hallway of Pinelake Health and Rehab and stopped the brutal attack. Officials said the massacre could have been bloodier if the officer had not managed to subdue Stewart.
"He acted in nothing short of a heroic way today, and but for his actions, we certainly could have had a worse tragedy," said Moore County District Attorney Maureen Krueger. "We had an officer, a well-trained officer, who performed his job the way he was supposed to and prevented this from getting even worse than it is now."
By late Sunday afternoon, Krueger had charged Stewart, 45, of Moore County, with eight counts of first-degree murder and a single charge of felony assault of a law enforcement officer. Authorities offered few other details, allowing only that Stewart was not a patient or an employee at the nursing home and isn't believed to be related to any of the victims.
Click here for photos.
Authorities said they would release more information at a news conference Monday morning.
"I don't know if the emotion entirely has set in," said Police Chief Chris McKenzie, a Carthage native who said nothing in his nearly 20-year law enforcement career compared to Sunday's slaughter. "It's a small community built on faith, and faith will get us through."
While authorities declined to comment on a possible motive, Stewart's ex-wife said he had been reaching out recently to family members, telling them he had cancer and was preparing for a long trip and to "go away." Sue Griffin said she was married to Stewart for 15 years, and while they hadn't spoken since divorcing in 2001, he had been trying to call her during the past week through her son, mother, sister and grandmother.
Griffin said Stewart had once been a painter. She said she had no idea whether her ex-husband was somehow connected to the nursing home or why he would shoot people there.
"He did have some violent tendencies from time to time," Griffin said. "I wouldn't put it past him. I hate to say it, but it is true."
Authorities said Stewart began his rampage around 10 a.m. local time at Pinelake Health and Rehab in the North Carolina Sandhills about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southwest of Raleigh, firing shots inside and outside the home. It ended when 25-year-old Officer Justin Garner traded gunfire with Stewart in a hallway, wounding the suspect.
"He just comes in and just starts shooting everything around," said Sen. Harris Blake, of Moore County, relating the story told by sheriff's officials.
Garner was wounded in his leg, and police said Stewart wounded two others. One person remained hospitalized Sunday night at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in nearby Pinehurst, and police would only say Stewart was in the custody of the Moore County Sheriff.
Krueger said the victims were Pinelake residents Tessie Garner, 88; Lillian Dunn, 89; Jessie Musser, 88; Bessie Hendrick, 78; John Goldston, 78; Margaret Johnson, 89; Louise Decker, 98; and nurse Jerry Avent, whose age wasn't immediately available.
The facility was closed after the attack as authorities worked to gather evidence inside and out. Krueger declined to say if authorities had moved the surviving residents, including patients with Alzheimer's disease, saying only, "They're safe, which is the primary thing."
Beverly McNeill said her mother, Pinelake resident Ellery Chisholm, called moments after the gunman stormed into her room and pointed his "deer gun" at her roommate. "They're up here shooting, they're up here shooting," she frantically told her 14-year-old granddaughter, Tavia, over the phone.
Chisholm told her daughter she hid her face in her shirt so she couldn't see the man or what she expected him to do, McNeill said. He didn't shoot, but left the room and began shooting down the hallway.
Friends and family of Pinelake residents and employees started to gather not long after the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Carthage. They were frustrated by the lack of immediate news about who had died, said Lea Chandler, a volunteer with the Moore County chapter of the American Red Cross.
Chandler said she saw two women and their husbands get the news that their mother had been killed.
"They were just crying out, 'Why mama?"' Chandler said. "To see people suffer is hard. To see people suffering, not knowing, trying to find information. It's a crime scene. They're not releasing things until people are notified, all next of kin. That's got to be hard. It really had to be hard."
Carthage police, Moore County sheriff's deputies and the State Bureau of Investigation conducted a search Sunday afternoon of the nursing home and its parking lot, where the windows of at least two cars were shattered and towed by authorities. Among the items they found was a camouflaged-colored rifle or shotgun, which was leaning against the side of a Jeep Cherokee.
Howard McMillian, of Lakeview, said he raced to the scene as soon as he heard about the shooting. His 56-year-old sister lives at the nursing home, and McMillian said his brother had gotten a call from officials saying she was unharmed.
"I know she's real nervous," McMillian said. "I just want to make sure she's OK."
Carthage is a small town of roughly 1,800 people in the North Carolina Sandhills, an area popular among retirees and home to several noted golf courses, including the famed Pinehurst resort and its No. 2 course that regularly hosts the U.S. Open.
Pinelake Health and Rehab was last inspected in May, and the review resulted in an overall five-star — or "much above average" — rating from federal Medicaid officials. A nursing home Web site said the facility opened in 1993 and has 110 beds, including 20 for those with Alzheimer's disease.
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's history on March 10. On March 11, a teen killed 12 people at his former high school in Germany.