Police believe that a domestic crisis may have propelled Robert Stewart to go to a North Carolina nursing home where his estranged wife worked and shoot dead seven elderly residents and one of their carers, in a rampage that has shocked even a country inured to gun violence.
At a press conference yesterday Chris McKenzie, chief of police in Carthage, the small town that is home to the Pinelake Health and Rehabilitation centre, left no doubt that the incident would have been even worse but for the courage of an off-duty police officer responding to an emergency call.
The officer, Justin Garner, brought down the 45-year-old Stewart, wounding him with a shot to the chest after a gun battle between the two in a hallway at the home. The suspected killer, a one-time painter, will appear in court next week to face eight charges of first-degree murder. "But for his [Mr Garner's] action, we could certainly have had an even greater tragedy," said Maureen Krueger, the district attorney in charge of the case.
As it was, the death toll was shocking enough: seven patients, one of whom was 98 and the youngest of whom was 78, as well as a 39-year-old nurse, named as Jerry Avant, who was believed to have been shot dead as he tried to stop the gunman. "He was a hero," Mr Avant's sister told reporters. "He just laid down his life to protect the residents and the other employees there." Three other people were injured in the incident on Sunday.
Yesterday police sealed and combed the site, as a stunned community tried to understand why Stewart embarked on his murderous spree. In recent days he had tried to re-establish contact with an ex-wife, with whom he had not previously spoken since their divorce in 2001. He also had told other relatives that he had cancer and had been preparing to "go away".
Stewart does not appear to be linked in any way with his victims. But police say his present wife Wanda, who works as an assistant nurse at Pinelake, could be a factor in the case. The two were recently estranged. Sue Griffin, the divorced wife, said she had no idea why her former husband should have attacked the nursing home. However, she said: "He did have some violent tendencies from time to time. I wouldn't put it past him."
The Carthage slaughter was the most shocking mass killing in a weekend of them across the United States. In Santa Clara, northern California, six people were shot dead in an apparent family killing in which a man is believed to have killed four children and an adult before turning his weapon on himself.
On the other side of the country, a 23-year-old man stabbed to death two of his sisters and wounded a third at the family home in Milton, Massachusetts, while their grandmother was doing laundry in the basement.
Kerby Revelus first stabbed his 17-year-old sister Samantha. As police broke down the door, they witnessed him decapitating his five-year-old sister Bianca, her birthday cake from the previous day still on the kitchen table. Officers shot Revelus dead as he tried to kill nine-year-old Sarafina, the sister who had made the emergency call. He fell to the floor, the knife still clasped in his hand.