— Every night, the staff at the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center took 88-year-old Jessie Musser from his room to the Alzheimer’s unit to visit his wife, Melba. But on Sunday night, there was no visit. The couple’s daughter hopes her mother never realizes why.
Jessie Musser was one of eight people killed in a shooting rampage Sunday morning at the 110-bed Carthage, N.C., facility. His daughter, Holly Musser Foster, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Monday that she had put him in the home just six weeks ago after caring for him at her home with the help of nursing aides.
“She does not know what happened,” Foster told Vieira, speaking of her mother. “She doesn’t know anything happened. She is in the Alzheimer’s lockdown unit … All she knows is that my dad didn’t get to come and visit her yesterday. She’s just looking for him. They took my daddy back to see her every day. He didn’t get to go yesterday and she doesn’t understand why … My prayer is that she doesn’t know what happened.”
The carnage in the nursing home might have been even worse had the gunman, identified as 45-year-old Robert Stewart, not been stopped by Carthage Police Officer Justin Garner, 25. The officer responded to 911 calls and entered the building, where he encountered Stewart. The two exchanged shots, and Garner wounded the assailant while suffering a bullet wound to his own leg.
Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie, who joined Foster for the remote report from Carthage, told Vieira that Garner is resting comfortably at home with his family while Stewart remains in a local hospital.
“Officer Garner’s actions will probably not be fully understood for quite some time,” McKenzie told Vieira. “I don’t know how many lives he saved by his selfless, courageous act — a hero in every sense of the word.”
McKenzie confirmed that Stewart’s estranged second wife was working at the facility at the time of the attack, but was not injured. The chief said investigators are still trying to determine if the woman was a target.
“It is something that we are looking into right now. She did work at the nursing home, and investigators are looking into whether or not that is part of his motive,” McKenzie told Vieira.
Stewart’s first wife, Sue Griffin, said the accused gunman was capable of such an attack.
“He did have some violent tendencies from time to time. I wouldn’t put it past him,” Griffin told NBC News. “I knew there was a possibility at some point if something snapped. And evidently it did.”
Soul of an artist
The rampage began around 10 a.m. Sunday. Foster said that she heard about it at around 10:30 from a private nursing aide who had helped care for her father when he was living at her home.
A retired railroad worker in West Virginia, Jessie came to North Carolina with wife Melba to live with Foster — one of their two daughters — six years ago. For the past 2½ years, Foster had employed nurses and aides to care for her father, who had gone blind. Like his wife, Jessie Foster was afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
“My dad was very quiet. He was a very humble man. He was a very devout Christian. He was very, very artistic and talented,” Foster told Vieira.
She held up a violin, the burled wood on the back of the instrument polished and gleaming in the morning light.
“This is a violin that my daddy made,” Foster said. “It took him 30 years to make this. He worked at it at his leisure. This kind of shows the type of man my dad was. He could do anything. He was just a very humble person who kept to himself. Everybody loved him. He will be sorely missed.”
District Attorney Maureen Krueger said Sunday that Stewart faces eight counts of first-degree murder. More charges are expected to be filed.
Community in shock
Stewart, 45, was not related to any of the victims. Seven of the victims were patients at the facility, while the other was a nurse who worked there.
The patients who were killed ranged in age from 78 to 98 years old. The age of the nurse was not available. Three others were wounded.
Krueger 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.
Family members of nursing home residents were called after the shootings to the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church of Carthage, a town of about 2,000 people and the seat of government for Moore County.
Crisis teams, including pastors and grief counselors, were helping shocked survivors process the news. The church's fellowship hall, designated as a command center during crises in the small town, started welcoming family members of the center's residents by mid-morning.
Willie Hill, whose mother is a resident of the home who was unharmed in the shooting, said officials read the list of victims to those assembled in the hall after locking the doors.
“We didn’t even know until they locked that door if Mama was on the list of victims,” said Hill, the retired police chief of nearby Robbins. “Some people broke down right there.”
Fatima Groce, 75, of Siler City, said she showed up at the nursing home in late afternoon to visit a long-time friend, Bessie Hendrick, 78, only to be turned away by sheriff’s deputies who sent her to the church.
Once there, Groce said she was told by officials that Hendrick had been killed in the shooting.
“I just can’t believe anyone would do such a thing,” Groce said.
Groce said Hendrick, a friend of more than 50 years, had entered the home a few months ago after breaking a hip and experiencing symptoms of dementia. She seemed to be improving, Groce said.
“I was hoping she’d be able to go home,” Groce said.