Wednesday, April 1, 2009

CARTHAGE, N.C. (AP) - A nurse’s assistant is devastated over allegations that her estranged husband shot seven patients and a fellow employee while she hid in a bathroom at the nursing home where she works, her mother said.

Margaret Neal said Robert Stewart, who is charged with killing seven residents and a nurse during Sunday’s attack, was prone to violence. Her daughter, Wanda, left him 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 just made up her mind that she had to get out,” Neal said in an interview Tuesday. “And thank the Lord she did.”

Neal said she believes Stewart was after her daughter, who survived by hiding behind the passcode-protected doors of the Alzheimer’s care unit at Pinelake Health and Rehab as he allegedly shot up the home’s hallways.

“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 the shootings were “domestic-related.” Prosecutors have declined to comment more specifically on a possible motive, but have said Stewart’s actions were not random.

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 who remains in a prison hospital. His wife is among many witnesses who have been interviewed, but Godfrey declined to comment on what she said.

Court documents show Stewart, 45, and his wife, 43, had an on-again, off-again relationship over many years that was bookended other failed marriages. Wanda Gay Neal, who also went by the last name Luck, 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 Wanda, 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. In court documents, Stewart listed his employer as “disabled” with an income of $786 a month. He listed no dependents.

Authorities said Stewart arrived at Pinelake around 10 a.m. Sunday, carrying more than one weapon. 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 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.


Associated Press writers Estes Thompson in Carthage, Mitch Weiss in Charlotte, Erin Gartner in Raleigh, and the AP’s News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.


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