A painter accused of shooting up a North Carolina nursing home may have been after his recently estranged wife during a rampage that killed seven residents and a nurse tending to their care, authorities said Monday.
The bloodbath ended when a police officer shot and wounded him in a hallway.
Robert Stewart's wife was working as a nursing assistant at Pinelake Health and Rehab when he attacked Sunday, not long after the two split, said Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie. The breakup ended a rocky relationship that spread over many years and bookended other failed marriages, according to court documents.
Authorities declined to elaborate on how their relationship may have played a role in the rampage, but the prosecutor who charged the 45-year-old suspect with murder left no doubt the attack had a purpose.
"We can share this: This was not a random act of violence," said Moore County District Attorney Maureen Krueger. "There is only one suspect and he is in custody."
A day after the shootings, Krueger said authorities didn't plan to release much more information about the case outside of the courtroom. Several search warrants police executed in the hours after the shooting were sealed, and Krueger would not say why.
But it appeared the relationship between Stewart and his wife, identified by a neighbor as Wanda Luck, was tied in someway to the rampage.
"We're certainly looking into the fact that it may be domestic-related," McKenzie said.
According to marriage records in Moore County, a 19-year-old Stewart married 17-year-old Wanda Gay Neal in July 1983. They divorced three years later, and both were involved in several other marriages before they reunited and married a second time in June 2002. McKenzie said he believed the couple had recently separated again.
One of Luck's former husbands, Joseph Ferguson, said Monday that their union lasted less than two years. He said Luck talked about Stewart, whom he later met, calling him a "normal guy" and saying he was shocked to learn he had been accused of killing eight people.
"I don't want to get into details about their marriage, but it was rocky, I can tell you that," Ferguson said.
Several telephone numbers for Luck and her family were disconnected, and a knock at the door was unanswered at an address in nearby Robbins.
After his first divorce from Luck, Stewart remarried in South Carolina to a woman named Ellen Susan McCaskill. She identified herself as Sue Griffin during a brief interview on Sunday, and told reporters Stewart had recently started reaching out to family members to tell them he had cancer and was preparing for a long trip and to "go away."
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 Krueger plans to seek a grand jury indictment on those charges next month. The attorney appointed to represent him, John Megerian of Asheboro, declined to comment because he hadn't spoken to his client.
McKenzie was unaware of any criminal activity in Stewart's past, and records in Moore County show the only charges on his record stem from a drunken-driving case in 1988. He was involved in a few minor civil complaints, including a 2002 order that he surrender $1,103 after a woman complained his painting business failed at repainting some wrought iron furniture.
Authorities said Monday that Stewart arrived at Pinelake, a 110-bed nursing home and care center for patients with Alzheimer's disease, around 10 a.m. local time Sunday. McKenzie said he was armed with more than one weapon, and witnesses said he was shooting both a "deer gun" and a shotgun as he blasted his way through the parking lot and into the facility.
Several people inside the home called police, pleading for help: "There's a man in here with a double-barrel shotgun shooting people! White man with a beard."
The shooting spree was ended by 25-year-old Master Officer Justin Garner, who entered the nursing home alone as he responded to the police calls. McKenzie said Garner, a training officer with more than four years on the Carthage force and a past winner of the department's officer of the year award, knew he was headed into a perilous situation, but didn't wait for backup or a SWAT team to arrive.
"If that's not heroism, I don't know what is," McKenzie said. "He had to go to all the way through the facility to encounter this individual. It would be hard for me to believe he didn't (hear gunfire)."
Stewart wounded Garner three times in the leg as they traded gunfire, with the single shot Garner fired from his .40-caliber service pistol hit Stewart in the chest. He was being held Monday at the state's Central Prison in Raleigh.
Authorities identified the victims as 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. Tessie Garner wasn't related to the police officer who ended the rampage.