Pinelake at 10: How N.C.’s Deadliest Mass Shooting Faded From Memory

Pinelake at 10



ON A WINDY SUNDAY morning in March 2009, a burly house painter with a messy beard walked into a Carthage nursing home and fatally shot eight people.

Many people in rural Moore County were still in church when Robert Stewart, 45, arrived at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation, a 110-bed facility specializing in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. He went there shortly after 10 a.m. in search of his estranged wife Wanda Neal, a nursing assistant who, unknown to Stewart, had been assigned that morning to the facility’s passcode-locked Alzheimer’s ward.

The rampage began in the parking lot. Armed with a .22 caliber hunting rifle, Stewart shot through the rear window of Neal’s unoccupied PT Cruiser before opening fire on a Ford pickup truck near the nursing home’s entrance. Michael Cotten was stepping out of the truck when a bullet pierced his left shoulder. He ran inside the building and called 911.

“I told them there was a guy out there shooting,” Cotten said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t long after that, as I went further into the facility (to hide), that we realized he was coming in.”

Stewart placed the rifle on the roof of his Jeep Cherokee, swapping the weapon for a 12-gauge pump shotgun. With the shotgun in hand and two other firearms — a 357-caliber revolver and a semi-automatic pistol — holstered around the waist of his overalls, Stewart walked into the main hall of the nursing home, the area where his wife would normally be working, and began shooting indiscriminately at elderly residents.

Jerry Avant Jr., a nurse, is believed to have been gunned down while attempting to move patients out of Stewart’s path. The 38-year-old had served 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard before receiving a nursing degree from Sandhills Community College, which would later establish a scholarship in his memory.

He was engaged to Jill DeGarmo, a fellow Pinelake employee who escaped the rampage without injury. In a television interview the next day, DeGarmo said she found her fiancé “laying on the floor bleeding” near shards of glass from a broken window.

An autopsy report said Avant was shot twice from a distance and once at close range. He died on an operating table at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst.

Louise DeKler, 98, was the oldest victim. The lively nonagenarian had moved to Carthage four years earlier to be closer to her daughter. She previously lived alone at an apartment complex in New Jersey, not far from the Atlantic City casinos where she loved to play double slots.

Dr. Deborah Raddisch, the state’s chief medical examiner, said DeKler was shot in her left thigh and pelvis. The wounds, Raddisch said, caused “a little bit of blood” to travel to DeKler’s spine and the base of her brain. She remains the oldest person known to have died in a mass shooting, according to The Washington Post.

Jerry Avant Jr. and Louise DeKler
Jerry Avant Jr., left, and Louise DeKler (Contributed photographs)

Lillian Dunn, 86, was a former employee of the defunct Milliken textile plant in Robbins. Her hobbies included making quilts and cooking with vegetables that she grew herself and canned.

Dunn was shot twice in her wheelchair. She was found slumped over in a red-and-white dress that she liked to wear on Sundays.

Tessie Garner, 76, was known for assembling beautiful Christmas baskets filled with, as one relative put it, “goodies I didn’t even know existed.” Garner was shot once, with the blast injuring multiple organs before exiting through her back. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.

John Goldston, 78, had 14 grandchildren. He enjoyed jigsaw puzzles and was a loyal fan of the Carolina Tar Heels. He was shot from less than two feet away.

Bessie Hedrick, 78, had once owned a beauty shop and was, according to her sister Elenor Clapp, a “dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.” She liked to travel and enjoyed singing in the choir at her church in Siler City before she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Hedrick, a 1980 graduate of Sandhills Community College, was shot from at least six feet away. As it had done with Avant, the school later created a scholarship in Hedrick’s memory.

Margaret Johnson, 89, ran a small farm with her family in Silk Hope before she moved to Pinelake. She died after being shot at close range in her left pelvis.

Jesse Musser, 88, was a retired railroad machinist who spent more than 40 years repairing trains in Virginia and West Virginia. He was shot in the back while waiting to visit his wife, an Alzheimer’s patient who also lived at the nursing home.

Dr. Thomas Clark, a state medical examiner, said Musser’s heart was “shredded” by the blast. Melba Musser was told her husband died in his sleep.

JUSTIN GARNER WAS the only Carthage police officer on duty when the call came in.

In a recent interview, Garner said it was not unusual to have just one officer patrolling the county seat on a Sunday morning.

“It was a small town,” he said.

Local officers at the time did not carry rifles or ballistic armor in their vehicles. The Carthage Police Department had no official protocol for responding to active shooter events.

Garner, then 25 years old, did not wait for backup when he arrived at the nursing home. He went alone into the building’s lobby, where he saw elderly residents doddering amid shell casings and spattered blood.

“When I walked through the front door, there were people wandering around like it was just another morning. To my left was a lady who had been shot in her wheelchair. There were like five or six people standing behind her, not saying a word. They didn’t have a clue what was going on.”

The shattered rear window of Neal's PT Cruiser
The shattered rear window of Neal’s PT Cruiser. (Photograph by Glenn Sides/The Pilot)

He made his way through the main corridor, past the motionless bodies of victims in beds and wheelchairs. Rounding a corner, he found the 380-pound shooter reloading his shotgun.

“There wasn’t any missing him,” Garner said. “He took up the whole frame of the hallway.”

Garner repeatedly ordered the man to drop his gun. Instead, Stewart leveled his weapon. Garner steadied his service pistol.

Years of hunting deer with his father had made Garner a fairly good marksman. Stewart was also a hunter. The two were once members of the same hunting club.

It was a small town.

The men fired almost simultaneously. Lead pellets from a ricochet struck Garner’s leg and foot. Stewart, shot in the chest by a bullet from Garner’s .40-caliber Glock pistol, fell to the ground.

Garner restrained Stewart by linking two pairs of handcuffs behind the burly gunman’s back. Reinforcements from every police department in the county were approaching the nursing home when Garner’s voice beamed over the radio: “The suspect is down.”

Stewart and Garner were both taken to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital for treatment. Within hours, they would be two of the most talked-about men in the country. 

National news organizations soon descended on Carthage to cover the rampage. During a hastily assembled press conference at the Carthage Fire Department, Police Chief Chris McKenzie tallied the morning’s violence: eight dead, three injured, two still hospitalized.

“If Justin hadn’t gone in when he did, there would have been many more killed,” McKenzie later told reporters. “I don’t know if he will ever know how many lives he saved.”

Over the next few days, chyrons praising the “Hero Cop” from Carthage were a common sight on cable news. Garner was still in the hospital when the interview requests started pouring in.

“The attention was overwhelming,” he said. “There was all this pressure.”

On April 3, the national media moved on. Another shooting rampage had left 14 people dead at the Binghamton American Civic Association building in New York. The perpetrator, like more than half of all mass shooters, died at the scene.

Stewart expected a similar fate. While lying in handcuffs on the floor of the bloody hallway, he allegedly begged Garner to kill him.

ACCOLADES PILED UP for Garner. He received awards from the National Tactical Officers Association and the American Police Hall of Fame. He was recognized on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and interviewed alongside McKenzie on “The Today Show” in New York.

Producers for “Dr. Phil” and “Geraldo at Large” tried to arrange interviews with the officers, but McKenzie turned down the requests. The exposure, he said at the time, was beginning to feel disrespectful to the victims.

Gov. Bev Perdue authorized more than $27,000 in payments to the victims’ estates through the N.C. Victim Compensation Fund. The money was meant to offset costs associated with the victims’ funerals, which were delayed until the autopsies could be conducted.

Stewart was sent to Central Prison in Raleigh, where he spent the next two years awaiting trial. Several residents, perhaps unaware he had been moved or not sure of the prison’s address, began sending angry letters meant for Stewart to the Carthage Police Department. A judge ordered McKenzie, who had been destroying the hate mail, to preserve the letters for evidence.


STEWART’S TRIAL began July 2, 2011. He faced eight counts of first-degree murder, with each charge carrying a possibility of the death penalty.

Fearing the extensive publicity had stoked bias among potential jurors in Moore County, Stewart’s court-appointed defense counsel persuaded Judge James Webb to move jury selection to Stanly County. More than 190 people were summoned for jury duty as part of the selection process, which required candidates to be interviewed about their beliefs on capital punishment.

In death-punishable cases, members of the jury cannot have strong opinions about the death penalty. People with moral objections to the death penalty are excused. So are those who believe death should always be imposed in capital cases.

It took weeks to find 12 suitable jurors and four alternates. They were bused in each day from Albemarle while the trial was underway at the courthouse in downtown Carthage, less than two miles from the site of the shooting.

Stewart admitted to the slayings in court but said he was not guilty of the charges. His lawyers, Jonathon Megerian and Franklin Wells, claimed large doses of Ambien, a popular sleep aid, mixed with Xanax and the antidepressant Lexapro, had caused Stewart to enter a state of “automatism.”

Stewart, his lawyers argued, was essentially sleepwalking when he carried out the rampage and could not be held criminally responsible for his actions.

Robert Stewart in Court
Robert Stewart in court (Photograph by Glenn Sides/The Pilot)

The prosecution team, led by assistant district attorney Peter Strickland, contended the attack was premeditated. Prosecutors pointed to an apparent suicide note Stewart had written days before the shooting as proof he knew what he was doing. They argued that Stewart completed multiple complex actions — gathering the four firearms, driving to the nursing home — that could not have been pulled off by a person suffering from a lapse in cognizance.

“Medication is not what caused this,” Strickland told the jury.

Maureen Krueger, the district attorney for Moore County, recused herself from the proceedings to avoid a potential conflict of interest stemming from an assault case she had worked on while in private practice. Stewart had accused his mother, who was represented at the time by Krueger, of assaulting him. Krueger negotiated a plea for the mother, who denied her son’s claims.

NEW DETAILS ABOUT Stewart emerged when Neal, his estranged wife, testified about the couple’s life before the shooting.

It was their second marriage to one another. They first wed when Neal was only 17. Her father had to sign the marriage license then. The union lasted just three years, but the two reconnected decades later, during her father’s funeral, and remarried in 2002.

The couple lived outside Robbins, about 20 minutes from the nursing home. Stewart owned multiple guns, all obtained legally, and used empty barrels in the yard for target practice. He was a heavy drinker, Neal said.

She said Stewart sank into a depression after losing his house-painting business. He filed for bankruptcy, she said, and the couple struggled to make ends meet.

Their financial situation improved somewhat after Stewart began receiving disability benefits for an injury he suffered years earlier. According to Neal, the injury happened when a mule fell on Stewart’s legs.

In her testimony, Neal described her second marriage to Stewart as “good and bad.” Neal said both she and her husband “had a temper,” but Stewart would give a “certain look” when he was angry. The look scared her, she said.

Brian Pilsen, Neal’s son from a previous marriage, testified that he once witnessed Stewart hitting his mother. An ex-wife remembered Stewart having “violent tendencies.”

He was described as “hot-tempered” by Tim Allred, an acquaintance from Stewart’s hunting club. But Stewart was also, as Allred put it in a colorful interview with The Pilot after the shooting, a “coward” who would initiate disputes with fellow club members only to retreat from confrontation.

“Big talk, no show,” Allred said of Stewart at the time. “You know what I mean? Just like he walked in on that rest home up there. He went in where he knew nobody could whip him. That was the cowardice in him.”

Neal left Stewart two weeks before the shooting. Prosecutors said he went to the nursing home to kill her in retaliation for leaving him, but he was unable to gain entry to the passcode-sealed Alzheimer’s ward where she was hiding in a bathroom.

Neal said she blamed herself for Stewart’s actions. The guilt, she said, drove her to attempt suicide by overdosing on prescription medication before the trial.

“I wanted all this to end,” she testified. “I know a lot of the family members hold everything against me. I understand, and I can’t take it no more.”

Tessie Garner’s Autopsy Report
Tessie Garner’s autopsy report (Image via N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office)

The proceedings dragged on for five weeks. Each day, the victims’ families squeezed into uncomfortable wooden benches for another round of gut-wrenching testimony. Daughters and sons heard grisly findings from their parents’ autopsy reports. Sisters and brothers watched as the guns used to kill their siblings were passed around for examination by the jury.

Long silences are common in superior court. At a typical session, several minutes might pass before a quiet moment is punctured by a cough or the sound of lawyers shuffling paper. But the courtroom rarely fell completely silent during Stewart’s trial. Wordless passages were normally filled with the anguished sobs of grieving family members.

Stewart showed little emotion. He seldom made eye contact with anyone outside his defense team. Even when confronted with impassioned testimony from the victims’ children, his face was expressionless.

Patricia McGraw, a victim witness legal assistant for the prosecution, made pound cake and peach cobbler for the families. In the final weeks of the trial, she ordered customized armbands for the victims’ relatives. The date of the shooting was emblazoned on each white band, along with an all-capitals message: “WE REMEMBER.”

McGraw, who is married to the mayor of Carthage, says she “will never forget” the trial. “It stays with you,” she said in an interview last week. “The evidence, the testimony, the families — mostly the families.”

A CONTINGENT OF the jury earned a special nickname from Judge Webb.

He called them The Smoking Jurors.

The Smoking Jurors requested several cigarette breaks during the 10-hour deliberation. Requests were scribbled on slips of paper and handed to the jury foreman, who delivered the notes to Webb.

A sheriff’s deputy was then summoned to stand guard while The Smoking Jurors smoked cigarettes outside the courthouse. The notes are stored in Stewart’s case file at the Moore County Clerk of Court’s Office.

Sixty-three days after the trial began, the jury found Stewart guilty on Sept. 3 of eight counts of second-degree murder. The jurors believed Stewart lacked the premeditation and deliberation necessary for a first-degree conviction.

He was acquitted of two counts of attempted first-degree murder for shooting Garner and Cotten.

Webb imposed the maximum punishment for each conviction, sentencing Stewart to 179 years behind bars. Knowing Stewart would spend the rest of his life in prison was cold comfort to many of the families. They had hoped to see Stewart sentenced to death.

“We were not happy about the verdict,” Strickland said in an interview on Tuesday.

It is possible, Strickland said, that the out-of-town jury was simply eager to bring the ordeal to an end. The verdict was rendered during a rare Saturday session on Labor Day weekend.

Looking back on the case, Strickland said “the brutally of the actions” stands out. Because of the location of their injuries, many of the victims are believed to have died in pain. They might have suffered less had Stewart shot them in the head.

Speaking to a reporter outside the courtroom, Connie Evans, daughter of slain Pinelake resident Bessie Hedrick, expressed bafflement over the jury’s decision. “If that’s not first-degree murder,” Evans said, “I don’t know what first-degree murder is.”

Shortly after the trial, Neal told The Associated Press she was satisfied with the verdict.

“He got what he deserved. I hope he rots in hell.”


STEWART IS CURRENTLY housed at Caswell Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Yanceyville. Prison officials have repeatedly cited him for fighting, possession of weapons and other infractions, according to his incarceration record.

In a handwritten complaint that was recently added to his voluminous case file at the Moore County Clerk of Court’s office, Stewart called his confinement “involuntary servitude.”

He has written many such letters during his time behind bars. Susan Hicks, the clerk of court, dutifully adds each new document to Stewart’s file, which is spread across multiple folders in a crowded filing cabinet at the county courthouse.

In 2015, Stewart sent a handwritten Freedom of Information Act request for retiring Sheriff Lane Carter’s letter of resignation, along with summaries of “any and all allegations leading to (Carter’s) resignation.” Stewart was building a lawsuit alleging the Moore County Sheriff’s Office destroyed a set of blood and urine samples related to his case. He was seeking $60 million in damages. The lawsuit was later dismissed as frivolous.

Two years later, Stewart requested copies of the indictments he had been served by a grand jury and a copy of “the envelope the jury foreman placed the indictments in.” Stewart needed the documents, he wrote, to “evaluate my legal situation and prepare a post-conviction petition.”

He submitted a handwritten petition in April 2018 for the writ of habeas corpus, a process used to determine if an inmate has been unlawfully imprisoned. Writing in the petition, Stewart claimed the judgment against him should be overturned because the state failed to include his full name in every indictment connected to the rampage.

For precedent, Stewart cited a 1940 case in which the state Supreme Court reversed the judgment against a man whose name was not included in a bill of indictment. In that case, the man had been sentenced to 12 months after pleading guilty to owning an illegal slot machine.

In October, Stewart sent a notarized complaint alleging his prison sentence was a “civil rights” violation. He described himself as a “state slave” in a letter addressed to the Moore County District Attorney’s Office.

He never writes about the eight people he killed in Carthage.

Letter From Stewart
One of several letters Stewart wrote to Tom Embrey, a reporter for The Pilot who died in 2016.

The Pilot was unable to reach Stewart for an interview, but last year he corresponded with GQ for an article in which a dozen convicted mass shooters were asked what could have been done to prevent their killing sprees. 

In a letter to a journalist for the U.K. edition of the magazine, Stewart maintained he had no recollection of his actions. He also wrote of being a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, calling it the “only way the people can keep the government from become [sic] tyrants.”

FRIDAY MARKED the 10th anniversary of the rampage, which remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern North Carolina history.

It is difficult to know what lasting impact, if any, the massacre had. While news of the attack was initially met with sadness and outrage from state lawmakers, no legislation was put forth in response to the shooting.

Kelly Haight, press assistant for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said federal regulations enacted in 2016 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services require nursing homes to have plans in place for “active shooter scenarios,” but the change does not appear to be related to the incident at Pinelake.

Garner, who now works as a recruiter for the Highway Patrol, said his experience is used as a case study in the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Training program. Instructors sometimes invite him to speak to their classes. Garner has noticed that younger students are not familiar with the shooting.

In the years before the Pinelake massacre, officers responding to mass shooting events were trained to cordon off the area and wait for a SWAT team to arrive. But many police departments began rethinking their approach after a 2013 FBI study found that most mass shootings last only five to eight minutes. Officers across the nation are now expected to follow Garner’s example by moving immediately toward engaging the shooter instead of waiting for back-up.

Scot Peterson, an ex-sheriff’s deputy in Florida, was widely condemned last year for standing by while a suspect with an AR-15-style rifle gunned down 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Peterson’s actions, or lack thereof, drew withering criticism from both President Donald J. Trump and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott. 

But Garner was not so quick to vilify the disgraced deputy. “I can only imagine what he’s feeling now,” he said. 

Garner is reluctant to accept praise for his actions. To hear him tell it, he simply did what any self-respecting police officer would have done when he entered the nursing home alone to confront Stewart. Garner would have been consumed by guilt, he said, had he stood on the sidelines while innocent people perished.

“I don’t know how a man could live with himself if he didn’t try,” he said. “Unfortunately, in today’s society, you’ve got to be willing to make that sacrifice.”

Research shows that reports of mass shooting events in the U.S. have increased dramatically since 2011, the year Stewart was convicted. More than 320 such events were reported last year.

Casualty counts have grown larger, too. Four of the five deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history happened within the past seven years. A total of 59 people died during the deadliest incident, the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival In Las Vegas.

Trooper Justin Garner
Trooper Garner at the Highway Patrol office in Aberdeen. (Photographs by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

Judy Woodward, a longtime librarian at the Moore County Public Library in Carthage, can’t recall the last time someone mentioned the incident at Pinelake.

“Everyone was just appalled when it happened,” she said. “Now people don’t talk about it at all.”

PATRICK MACON, a martial arts instructor from Asheboro, visited Moore County earlier this month to teach a self-defense course on “active-shooter survival.” The timeliness of the training, he said, was a coincidence. He was not aware of the upcoming anniversary of the worst killing spree in the state’s modern history.

Only four women signed up for the free course, which was held at a Southern Pines recreation center less than 12 miles away from the site of the rampage. The seriousness of the presentation was undermined by the constant cheering and laughter from a volleyball game that was underway at the center when the class began.

According to Macon, the first thing a person should do during an active-shooting event is run away from the shooter. Macon told the women to stick close to walls while they flee. This will help minimize their “footprint” if they are forced to sprint past the perpetrator’s line-of-sight, he said.

If running isn’t an option, Macon told the women they should hide in an empty room, ideally one with furniture that can be used to barricade the door. If hiding isn’t an option, he said the group must be prepared “to meet aggression with aggression” by improvising weapons from whatever items are within reach.

And if no weapons are available, Macon said the women should attempt to strike the shooter’s head with the heels of their hands. He said palm strikes are preferable to throwing closed-fist punches, which can cause knuckle injury.

The course was modeled after the same three-step technique the FBI advises civilians to follow during active-shooting events. Run, hide and — as a last resort — fight.

But these instructions would have been little use to the elderly victims at Pinelake. Several were in wheelchairs or otherwise incapable of running. Their diminished hearing and sight would have made it exceedingly difficult to find a safe place to hide. They did not have the strength to confront the nearly 400-pound gunman.

Macon said businesses across the state invite him to provide active-shooter survival training to their employees. “It’s hard to believe we live in a world where these classes are even necessary,” he said.

One of Macon’s college classmates can no longer walk because of a gunshot injury the student suffered in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Next month marks the 20th anniversary of that shooting.

Though Macon said he was unfamiliar with the 2009 rampage in Carthage, he recalled hearing something recently about a mass shooting “that happened a while ago at a nursing home in the area.”

PINELAKE HEALTH and Rehabilitation is now known as Peak Resources Pinelake. The Charlotte company that owns the nursing home decided to change the facility’s name in the mid-2010s.

In a written statement declining an interview request from The Pilot, a spokeswoman for Peak Resources said the company had no plans to “publicly address the anniversary” of the shooting.

“We feel it is our responsibility to uphold the privacy of those families and employees who prefer to grieve in private,” wrote Mandy Reutter, chief technology officer for Peak Resources. She said the nursing home’s employees “strive to ensure the safety and well-being of each resident under our care.”

“As to the incident of March 29, 2009, we are extremely proud of the staff members, residents, and families present at the time and their rapid and diligent response in handling a very unique and difficult situation,” Ruetter wrote. “The event was a very unfortunate incident and all those who were involved have spent the years healing from this experience.”

Peak Resources Pinelake
The nursing home changed its name after the rampage. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

The company’s decision not to acknowledge the anniversary was unsurprising to Bert Patrick, a former nursing instructor at Sandhills Community College. “They don’t want anyone to talk about it,” she said.

Jerry Avant, the slain nurse, was one of Patrick’s students. She believes Avant died defending vulnerable residents because he “felt a responsibility to care for those people.”

“There was a kindness about him,” she said. “How many men that spent 10 years in the Coast Guard then want to be a nurse at a nursing home?”

Patrick lives in Carthage and is a member of the local historical committee, which runs a small museum in the 200 block of Rockingham Street. Open only on Sundays, the museum contains hundreds of artifacts tied to notable moments in the town’s 243-year history.

There are exhibitions about James Rogers McConnell, a local aviator who died fighting for France before the U.S. entered World War I, and the Tyson & Jones Buggy Co., a carriage manufacturer that set the standard for horse-drawn transportation in the mid-1800s. But visitors will find no mention of the nursing home shooting that briefly transformed Carthage into a national cause célèbre.

According to Patrick, the shooting has not been deliberately overlooked by the historical committee. She would like to see Garner’s account of the rampage added to the museum’s collection.

“We need to get him to write some of that down,” Patrick said. “That needs to be in this museum.”

Still, Patrick acknowledged that the shooting is a complicated topic for the community. She said her daughter, a musician who “loves Carthage,” has wanted for years to see new information added to the town’s Wikipedia page, which features a prominent section dedicated to the shooting.

Patrick said her daughter doesn’t necessarily want the section to be removed. She simply wants the Wikipedia entry to provide a more complete portrait of the town.

“You type in ‘Carthage’ and that’s what comes up,” Patrick said.

On Monday, the website for Peak Resources Inc. featured a graphic celebrating the company’s 20th anniversary.

MAYOR LEE MCGRAW did not realize a decade had passed since the shooting. After being informed of the anniversary, he opened the March 18 meeting of the Carthage Board of Commissioners with a prayer for the victims and their families.

“Time just moves on and we sometimes put bad things behind us to get them out of our memory,” McGraw said during the meeting. “The tragedy touched us very hard. Most of us, one way or another, knew the people or knew the people very well.”

A Carthage native, McGraw was a town commissioner when the shooting happened. He was elected mayor before the trial began in earnest.

“It did change things for the community,” he said in an interview on March 22, a week before the anniversary. “When it happened, people said it’s not going to define us, it’s not who we are.”

Much as the town wanted to step out of the shooting’s shadow, McGraw said residents were careful not to forget those affected by the rampage.

“People really were empathetic to the families and nurses,” McGraw said. “They tried to be respectful.”

McGraw’s father-in-law is a resident at Peak Resources Pinelake. When McGraw visits the facility, he finds it difficult to imagine the carnage that once unfolded there.

After the recent board meeting, McGraw asked a representative for Peak Resources Pinelake if the nursing home would be amenable to hosting a brief ceremony in observance of the anniversary. The representative rejected the proposal, citing the corporate owners’ wishes to distance themselves from the shooting.

The mayor considered organizing a moment of silence on town property, but decided against it. He also instructed Dorothy Dutton, the town clerk, to remove a message about the anniversary from the town’s monthly newsletter.

McGraw said he wanted to confer with residents before dredging up the massacre on behalf of Carthage.

ON FRIDAY MORNING, flags in Moore County were not lowered to half-staff, as they had flown 10 years earlier. The satellite vans that once filled the parking lot of the Moore County Agricultural Center, the building nearest to the nursing home, did not return on the anniversary of the shooting.

Gov. Roy Cooper did not tweet about the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s modern history. No statements were issued by U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, Sen. Richard Burr or Sen. Thom Tillis, whose districts include Moore County.

No special service was held at First Baptist Church, the Carthage house of worship where the victims’ families waited anxiously a decade ago for updates about their loved ones — and where many of those same families bonded over meals during Stewart’s trial.

There was no moment of silence at Sandhills Community College, where a sculpture is dedicated to the victims. The sculpture was unveiled during the 2010 spring commencement ceremony and is located beneath a cluster of trees near the Kennedy Center.

Jordan Cranford, a former student, remembers seeing the sculpture on campus before she graduated in 2012. She was never told what the piece was commissioned to commemorate. She had not heard about the decade-old shooting at Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation.

“I never really knew about it and I’ve lived here my whole life,” she said.

One of the few tributes Friday morning came from Moore District Attorney Maureen Krueger. Writing in a Facebook post, Krueger shared her memories of the shooting.

“Throughout the nursing home, one violent scene led to another,” she wrote. “The bloody murder trail was easy to follow but impossible to comprehend. The magnitude of the violence revealed itself. Old age had rendered these victims completely defenseless and harmless; feeble in body and mind.

“When I think of Pinelake, I remember the heroes, the innocent lives that were taken, and their families who still live with the grief.”

Michael Cotten
Michael Cotten on March 22, 2019. (Photograph by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

Michael Cotten, the first victim, is now the local branch director for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. The bullet from Stewart’s hunting rifle is still lodged in his shoulder.

“In some ways it doesn’t feel like 10 years and in other ways it does,” Cotten said. “I feel real fortunate to be here. It could have turned out really differently.”