By Estes Thompson
CARTHAGE, N.C. — Justin Garner turned down a chance to join the state highway patrol so he could stay on his small hometown's police force. In just five years, he'd already been named Officer of the Year. And when a call came in that a gunman was shooting up a nursing home, Garner was the only one on duty when seemingly everyone else in this town of 1,800 was at church.
The clean-cut outdoorsman with a passion for hunting and fishing raced to the Pinelake Health and Rehab Center. Armed with a .40-caliber Glock pistol, he entered the building to confront Robert Stewart, 45, in the hallway. Garner fired his weapon once, hitting Stewart in the chest, even though Garner had already been shot three times in his foot and leg.
A day later, Garner was being praised as a hero in this small town in North Carolina's Sandhills region, about 60 miles southwest of Raleigh, for forging into the nursing home without waiting for backup to stop a man authorities say shot and killed eight people - many of them elderly and frail - inside.
"If that's not heroism, I don't know what is," said Police Chief Chris McKenzie, who later added: "You can train all you want to, but it comes down to whether you have what it takes."
Garner, 25, grew up in the Carthage area like most of the town's 18-officer police force, said McKenzie, who's also a native. Garner, who is married, has been on the force for less than five years but already has been honored as the town's Officer of the Year.
At one point, though, Garner nearly joined the North Carolina Highway Patrol before ultimately deciding to stay in Carthage, said the Rev. Tom Herndon, the chaplain for the police and fire departments. Herndon, who also is pastor of First Baptist Church of Carthage, described Garner as "a real clean-cut, handsome young fellow" who is fair to the people he serves.
"He's one of the individuals who will give you a break if you happen to be speeding one mile an hour over the speed limit," Herndon said, adding that his wife once received a warning from Garner though he didn't know who she was.
McKenzie said Garner hunts and fishes whenever he gets the chance, and that he's not surprised the officer stayed close to home.
"You don't find too many country boys heading to the city (to become police)," McKenzie said. "They stay here to take care of their own."
Seven nursing home residents and one of their caretakers were killed and three others, including Garner, were wounded. Stewart was charged with eight counts of first-degree murder.
McKenzie said Garner isn't yet ready to speak publicly about the shootings.
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"He wants to sit at home with his family and rest. He almost died yesterday," McKenzie said.