Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ROBBINS, N.C. (AP) - The estranged wife of a man charged with gunning down seven residents and a nurse at a North Carolina nursing home said Wednesday she wishes she had been the victim instead. Wanda Gay Neal told WRAL-TV she has apologized to some families of those killed.

“The ones that would speak to me, I told them I was sorry,” said the 43-year-old nurse’s assistant. “I wish it had been me, instead of them.”

Authorities say Neal’s husband, Robert Stewart, 45, shot and killed eight people at Pinelake Health and Rehab on Sunday before a Carthage police officer shot him and ended the rampage. Stewart was wounded but survived and has been charged with eight counts of first-degree murder.

Neal said she was working in the facility’s Alzheimer’s unit when she heard on a loudspeaker that a man was inside with a gun. She said she and her co-workers began moving residents into a TV room.

“We barricaded the door. We put down the blinds, and we sat and cried and hugged each other,” Neal told WRAL. “We tried to keep them comforted as much as we could.”

Neal said that while trying to go back for more patients she ducked into a bathroom after hearing the gunman was heading down the hallway toward her. Neal’s mother, Margaret Neal, said in an interview Tuesday that Stewart was unable to reach the Alzheimer’s unit because it was locked with a passcode, which Stewart did not know.

Wanda Neal said she believed that her husband was trying to hurt her by killing patients because he couldn’t reach her.

“What kind of man goes after somebody in a wheelchair? That’s a coward,” she said.

Court documents show the couple married twice, but Neal’s mother said Tuesday Neal had recently left him moved back to a home on the family property in Robbins, about half an hour from the site of the shootings.

Authorities have declined to speculate on a motive but say they are looking into whether the shooting was “domestic-related.”

Defense lawyer Frank Wells said he met Stewart on Tuesday for the first time at North Carolina’s maximum security Central Prison in the visitation area, a series of booths with reinforced windows between prisoners and visitors.

“He is being treated for his wound at the prison hospital,” Wells said. “He was able to come down to the visitation booth and meet with me wearing a hospital gown.”

Wells wouldn’t discuss Stewart’s frame of mind or what they talked about.

“It’s the beginning of understanding the case against Mr. Stewart,” he said. “There is an awful lot of work to do.”

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