CARTHAGE — Jurors found Robert Stewart guilty of eight counts of second-degree murder Saturday after deliberating for eight hours over two days at the Moore County Courthouse.
The 47-year-old disabled painter and National Guard veteran was then sentenced to what amounts to life in prison. Judge James Webb imposed eight sentences of about 16 to 20 years each, to be served consecutively, and another 22 years for weapons and firearms convictions. The total sentence ranges from about 148 to 179 years.
Connie Evans, whose mother Bessie Hendrick was among Stewarts victims, shook as she testified at a sentencing hearing after the verdict that his actions had a lasting effect on Hendricks five children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild she will never see.
There was not another mother like our mother, Evans said of the woman who loved to travel, was a diehard Democrat and had spent years working with disabled adults at Chatham Trades, a nonprofit in Siler City.
In all, nine family members testified about the people they lost in the violent shooting at the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation Center on March 29, 2009, that took eight lives and wounded two others. All said their families lives had been changed forever by Stewarts actions.
The only person Ive not seen showing any emotion or caring is Robert Stewart, said Jill DeGarmo, whose brother Jerry Avent was a nurse at the center and was two weeks from earning his nursing degree when killed. He received the degree posthumously, she said.
Linda Feola, whose mother Louise DeKler was killed a day before she was supposed to move back home, said the trial felt like it would never end and she hopes that her family and the other families affected by the tragedy would find peace.
DeKler was 98 when she died and remained independent to the end, Feola said. DeKler was born in Holland and came to America as a teenager with her family, working as a nanny for many years. She loved to bowl, playing the game until she was 94 and maintaining 150 average, Feola said.
A social butterfly, DeKler also loved to take care of people, made crafts that she sold at boutiques and was smitten with best friend and longtime hall mate John Goldston, who also was killed in the rampage, Feola said.
Sunday, that man killed her like she was a roach, and that man will not be where my mom is. Ive heard he was saved [since being arrested], she said. Not in this world.
Stewart showed little emotion as the judge read the verdict but smiled and consulted with defense attorney Franklin Wells during his sentencing. He will appeal the verdict to the N.C. Court of Appeals, defense attorney Jonathan Megerian said.
Megerian said he is honestly and completely convinced Stewart doesnt remember committing the murders and said Stewart has told him that he would give anything in the world to go back and change the past.
Although the state sought first-degree murder convictions, assistant district attorney Peter Strickland failed to convince the jury that Stewart had intent, malice, and premeditation and was deliberate in his actions that day required for a first-degree murder conviction.
I apologize, Strickland told the families after Stewart was sentenced.
Many family members wept quietly as the verdict was read, some held each other. Their moods changed, however, when Webb said Stewart would serve his sentence on each count consecutively. One man pumped his fist into the air in victory, while others smiled at those beside them.
Stewarts family remained composed throughout the verdict and while hearing testimony from the victims families. A woman identified as his sister Jamie McKenzie broke into tears during the 15-minute recess before he was sentenced.
As sheriffs deputies led Stewart out of the courtroom to a waiting van, he pointed at his family sitting behind him and said, You better come by and see me.
Prosecutors had argued that Stewart went to the center armed with four firearms to find his estranged wife, Wanda Neal, who had left him about two weeks earlier. Not finding her, he unleashed his anger on staff and residents, only stopping after a Carthage police officer shot him in the chest. The officer was shot in the leg during the rampage.
Neal arrived from work at Pinelake in time for Saturdays verdict and sentencing. Although she didnt want to say much about the case, Neal said Stewart doesnt care how he hurt the families, but he got what he deserved.
Her mother, Margaret Neal, said Wanda Neal has suffered immensely since the killings and will need more time before she can begin to have a normal life.
Maybe one day, our lives will change, Margaret Neal said.
Stewarts attorneys never contested his role in the killings. However, they argued that he was not aware or in conscious control of his actions because he was mentally ill and was taking a combination of the sleeping medication Ambien, the antihistamine Benadryl, the antidepressant Lexapro and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
According to court testimony, Stewart has been diagnosed as suffering from borderline personality disorder and was deeply depressed in the weeks before the shootings. He had been taking Ambien for more than two years and is believed to have taken a dose four to 12 times the prescribed amount before the shootings.
The jury requested additional information before making its decision Saturday, including Duke pharmacologist Wilkie Wilsons testimony about the antidepressant Lexapro and state psychologist Dr. LaVonne Foxs report, who evaluated Stewart at Central Regional Hospital and administered several psychological tests to him. A day earlier, they reviewed evidence related to Stewarts medical history, statements from a shooting witness and testimony from forensic psychiatrist Dr. Nicole Wolfe, who said she believes Stewart understood his actions.