CARTHAGE, North Carolina – The nurse's assistant who may have been the target of a deadly nursing home rampage in North Carolina survived by hiding in a bathroom inside a locked area for Alzheimer's patients, her mother said Tuesday.
Margaret Neal said her daughter Wanda is "devastated" by the alleged actions of estranged husband Robert Stewart, who authorities believe killed seven residents and a nurse during Sunday's attack. She believes Stewart was after her daughter, who was safe behind the passcode-protected doors of the Alzheimer's care unit as he allegedly shot up the home's hallways.
"She said she hid in the bathroom. She was close to him," Neal said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The reason he didn't get to her was because he didn't know the code."
Neal said her daughter left Stewart about a month ago and moved back to a home on the Neal family property, about half an hour from the site of the shootings in Carthage. She said Stewart had a tendency to grow violent, although Wanda usually kept quiet about the details of their marriage.
"He had a rage," Neal said. "It would just explode over everything. He would be good and then something would just set him off."
Authorities have said they are investigating whether Stewart's rampage was "domestic-related." Prosecutors have declined to comment more specifically on a possible motive, but have said his actions were not a random act of violence.
Moore County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Neil Godfrey said Tuesday that detectives have yet to complete a full interview with Stewart, a burly painter nicknamed "Pee Wee" by his hunting buddies. Stewart remains in a prison hospital. His wife is among the many witnesses who have been interviewed, but Godfrey declined to comment on what she told detectives.
"It would simply be speculation on the motive," Godfrey said.
But court documents show Stewart, 45, and his wife, 43, had an on-again, off-again relationship that spread over many years and bookended other failed marriages. Wanda Gay Neal and Robert Stewart first married as teenagers in the mid-1980s, a union that ended in divorce a few years later.
Even as they married several other people, Stewart still talked about her, said Sue Griffin, who was Stewart's wife for 15 years before he and Wanda reunited and married each other — again — in June 2002. Griffin said Stewart would often compare her and Luck, complaining that, "Wanda doesn't do it like that."
"I'd look at him and say, 'Well, I ain't Wanda,"' Griffin said in an interview Monday. "As time went on, I could tell he wasn't quite over her."
Griffin said in an earlier interview that Stewart had recently started telling family he had cancer and was preparing for a long trip and to "go away." Neal said Tuesday that her daughter wasn't aware of a cancer diagnosis, but Stewart had long used oxygen for breathing troubles.
"She just made up her mind that she had to get out," Neal said. "And thank the Lord she did."
Authorities said Stewart arrived at Pinelake around 10 a.m. Sunday. McKenzie said he was armed with more than one weapon, and witnesses said he was shooting both a "deer gun" and a shotgun. Several people inside the home called 911, pleading for help: "There's a man in here with a double-barrel shotgun shooting people! White man with a beard."
Stewart made his first court appearance Monday on eight counts of first-degree murder and a single charge of felony assault of a law enforcement officer and isn't scheduled to return to court until next month. He was wounded by a Carthage police officer responding to the 911 calls and remains in medical care at the state's Central Prison in Raleigh.
One of Stewart's court-appointed attorneys, Frank Wells of Asheboro, said Tuesday he and his colleagues hoped to meet with their client for the first time later in the day. He declined to comment about the case.
Authorities identified the victims as Pinelake residents Tessie Garner, 75; Lillian Dunn, 89; Jesse Musser, 88; Bessie Hedrick, 78; John Goldston, 78; Margaret Johnson, 89; Louise DeKler, 98; and nurse Jerry Avant, 39.