The gunman had already killed eight people and wounded two others, and now a 25-year-old police officer with no backup was facing the deranged man in the hall of a North Carolina nursing home.
The officer ordered the man, who was about 35 yards away, to put down the shotgun three times. Instead, the man continued reloading the weapon. When he raised it to fire, the officer dropped the gunman with a pistol shot to the chest.
“It was very scary,” Carthage Police Cpl. Justin Garner admitted Monday on TODAY, his first interview since the March 29 shooting rampage at the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center. “When I went in, it was just doors, hallways, rooms everywhere. I was just going through — I didn’t know where he was at. It was very scary. Very scary.”
Garner may have been scared, but kept his cool and did his job, earning praise from the chief of the tiny police force in Carthage, a small and usually quiet golfing community.
“If that’s not heroism, I don’t know what is,” Carthage Police Chief C.T. McKenzie said of Garner’s actions. “He will hopefully someday realize how many lives he actually saved. I don’t know that anybody here can understand what it takes for a single officer to enter a facility of any kind with that situation surrounding him and to forge ahead and do his job.”
When the call came in around 10 a.m. that there was a shooting at the rehabilitation center, Garner was the only officer on duty.
When Garner first got the call at 10:01 a.m. ET, he knew only that shots had been fired at the facility. His initial thought, he told TODAY co-anchor Matt Lauer, was that someone was target shooting at one of the homes in the residential area surrounding the nursing home.
It was only when he arrived at the facility and saw a car with the driver’s window shot out that he realized something more serious was going on.
When he entered the building, he saw a woman in a wheelchair who had been wounded. Knowing now the full danger he faced, Garner started searching the building’s long hallways lined with residents’ rooms and doorways.
“He come out of another hallway into the hallway I was in. It was probably 35 yards. I instructed him to put the gun down. He had the shotgun in his hands,” Garner told Lauer.
The officer repeated the command three times as the man, identified as 45-year-old Robert Stewart, methodically reloaded the weapon with cartridges filled with buckshot — big metal balls designed to bring down deer.
As Stewart raised his weapon to shoot, Garner fired his sidearm, striking Stewart in the chest and bringing him down. Stewart also fired, hitting the officer in the left leg and foot with three shotgun pellets.
“He managed to get a shot off,” the officer told Lauer. “Apparently it was about the same time I shot, because I never heard his gun go off. I just felt it when it struck my leg.”
As Garner told his story in a matter-of-fact tone, his police chief sat next to him.
“Certainly had Justin not done what he did, the loss of life would have been a lot greater,” McKenzie told Lauer. “As much training as we try to teach, for Officer Garner to actually execute that, and the way he executed it, saved an unknown amount of lives. We may never know.”
The chief emphasized that no matter how much training an officer has, it’s hard to execute it in a moment of mortal danger. It takes a lot of control and steadiness to hit a man at 35 yards with a single pistol shot — especially when he’s shooting back.
“Trying to teach these officers to do exactly that is almost impossible,” McKenzie told Lauer. “But if they fail to do that, the repercussions could have been unbelievable.”
‘Shots fired, subject down’
Investigators believe that Stewart, the gunman, was searching for his estranged wife, Wanda, 43, who was working in the facility in the Alzheimer’s unit. When Stewart entered and started shooting, Wanda Stewart heard an alert on the public address system about a gunman and with co-workers moved the patients into a TV room, where they barricaded the door and pulled the blinds.
While they huddled in the room, Stewart walked the facility, calmly shooting his defenseless victims in their beds. He killed seven residents ranging in age from 78 to 98 along with a nurse, and faces eight counts of first-degree murder. Stewart is recovering from his wounds in a hospital.
Police records show that Garner received the call for aid at 10:01 a.m. Four minutes later, he radioed his dispatcher to report that he had shot the gunman.
“Shots fired. Subject down,” he said.
“Copy that,” the dispatcher replies. “Is the shooter — have you located the shooter?”
“He’s down, Central. He’s been shot,” Garner reports before adding that he had also been wounded: “I’ve been shot in the foot.”
By 10:06, ambulances were on the scene, followed quickly by additional police. Four minutes later, Garner reported that the scene was secure and the building safe for other deputies to enter.
Officials identified the dead 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.
The nursing home has no security staff, but a state regulator said that arrangement was typical of such facilities, which are categorized as residential.
Garner said he didn’t realize how many lives he probably saved until he had been treated for his wounds and was back home with his wife.
“It didn’t really dawn on me until later on that night,” he told Lauer. “I was at home getting ready to go to bed, it really hit me pretty hard.”
In the week since, he and his police department have received more than a thousand messages from people expressing gratitude and support.
“It’s been unbelievable, the support,” Garner said. “You didn’t realize it was out there and something happens, you got a lot of support. We really got a good town.”