March 29, 2009 is a date to remember in Carthage, North Carolina. It was a warm sunny Sunday. The sky was clear in this Southern town of 2,000 people and the lone on-duty police officer, 25-year-old Justin Garner was observing traffic trickle toward church.
At about 10:00 a.m., the Moore County 911 dispatcher disturbed the Norman Rockwell-like setting with a report, “Shot’s fired at 801 Pinehurst Avenue.”
Justin, a four and a half year veteran of the Carthage Police Department steered his Dodge Charger patrol car toward the Pine Lake Health and Rehab Center for the elderly. His mind had not wrapped itself as of yet around the possibility that someone might be shooting inside the facility. Calls of this type were usually hunters mistakenly getting too close to town. When he rolled into the lot at the facility he a red Ford Ranger caught his attention. It had the driver’s side window shot out and he knew something more serious was in store for him on this call than disoriented hunters.
Suddenly a female came running to the door and exclaimed that there was a man inside and “He is shooting people!” By the frantic look on her face she did not have to add, “This is not a drill.”
Justin Garner, who was the only officer on duty in Carthage, entered the rehab center.
He was met with dead silence. He said, “You could have heard a pin drop.” As he moved further into the facility he could see no one near the front door other than an elderly woman in a wheel chair. When he checked on her he could see she had been shot in the chest. “She was gone,” Justin recalled quietly moved by the haunting image,
“I saw there were elderly residents wandering about the facility, who did not have a clue what was happening. I knew that someone was shooting them and could not figure out why anyone would shoot them. They were like children...defenseless. I thought, 'I had to find this guy',” said Justin.
He reached the nurse’s station and other than disoriented elderly patients he saw nothing and heard nothing to indicate where the gun man was. He instinctively stepped into one hallway and paused. Then he heard shots and the gunman appeared straight down the hallway he was in.
Gun Fight at Pine Lake Health and Rehab
The suspect, Robert Stewart, was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and had a bag filled with ammunition strapped over his shoulder. He possessed a revolver in a holster, slipped in the middle of his back and he was hunting for his ex-wife, who was working in a locked down facility at the rehab center.
He had not found her and for some reason had chosen to shoot anyone he met. At the moment he turned to face Officer Garner, eight innocents lay dead and there were two more wounded. Stewart was determined there would be more killings and Justin was determined to end the violence in this, the most desperate moment of his life.
Justin raised and aimed his .40 caliber Glock 22. Stewart was loading shells into his shotgun and Justin shouted for him to “drop the weapon!” three times. Stewart turned, shouldered his weapon and brought it down to bear on Justin. At the same moment Justin fired once. Officer Garner did not hear his weapon fire and did not hear Stewart’s weapon fire, but he knew Stewart had.
Justin felt a sharp sudden burning in his leg and foot, but instinctively moved into a doorway for cover. He was concerned Stewart might be advancing on him so he leaned out and saw Stewart was down and not moving. Justin had fired once and hit Stewart in the chest, incapacitating him.
He recalled, “I felt the burning in my leg, but it did not really, really hurt. I was still able to walk up and cuff the man.”
In the initial scan of the area, it appeared the suspect was alone and conscious, but not moving. He had dropped the shotgun, but Justin found the revolver and removed it from Stewart’s holster, unloaded it and slid it out of reach.
From the time of the call to the time Justin calmly reported that shots had been fired and the suspect was down four minutes had elapsed. He told dispatch that he was also wounded.
Justin had been hit with pellets in the leg and one in the foot. He will be returning to light duty after about one month of recovery. He had never met Robert Stewart before, but has heard since that Robert had a tendency toward domestic violence.
He said the incident was tough on his wife of four years. She had been getting ready for church, when someone heard the call on the scanner and called his wife without much information other than “Justin has been shot.”
He said the hardest part of dealing with the situation was realizing, “The man tried to kill me. Sleep did not come easy for a while, but it’s getting better.”
Justin has been recognized for his bravery by his High School Alma Mater, The Union Pine High School. He also received the “Standing Hero Award.” It is given in the memory of Officer Tye Pratt of the Omaha P.D. Officer Pratt was killed in the line of duty.
Justin Shares His Insight
It is important to note that no one died after Justin located Robert Stewart. Justin suggests that to prepare for such an incident officers need to train. He said he had trained to respond to critical incidents like this one and his training came back to him. He did what he did in training and that helped him to remain calm.
When Justin had been involved in training for the active shooter he had wondered about whether such an incident could possibly happen to him. He observed, “I can say to everyone, it can.” The training prepared him to calmly think what needed to be done and then do it. “I knew I had to remain calm and I did. I didn’t rush.”
He also said that he has been around firearms all his life and he was no stranger to shooting and that helped, when it counted.
A “Standing Hero”
It is fitting that Justin Garner, one of Carthage North Carolina’s finest, was given the “Standing Hero Award.” The citation on the award declares fittingly “America is the home of the free, because of the brave.”
Justin Garner, the lone officer on duty, could not have imagined on that sleepy Sunday morning that he was going to be called upon to handle an in progress active shooter call. He did receive such a call and handle it he did, with undeniable courage and unmistakable skill. Justin was not fighting just for his own life. Many lives were depending on the outcome of this gunfight. All in that Rehab Center breathed a sigh of relief that, when the gun smoke cleared, that Officer Justin Garner was the “Standing Hero.”