COMPILED FROM WIRE AND STAFF REPORTS
MONETA, VA. – On Wednesday morning, as southwestern Virginia television viewers watched on live TV, a WDBJ-TV reporter and her cameraman were shot and killed in the middle of their broadcast. Police later identified the suspect as Vester Lee Flanagan II, one of the journalists’ former TV station co-workers.
The person being interviewed, local Chamber of Commerce executive director Vicki Gardner, was wounded but is expected to survive.
By the time Flanagan, 41, shot and killed himself after a police chase several hours later, his face and his actions had been widely broadcast on televisions across the nation and on social media.
Flanagan, who was Black, cited racism and bullying as a motive, though Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton said it was “obvious” that Flanagan “was disturbed in some way.”
The shooting was a grotesque moment of television that swiftly appeared on CNN and YouTube.
About eight shots rang out as reporter Alison Parker, 24, screamed and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, fell to the ground, his camera spun to show a grim-faced man striding forward with a pistol in his hand.
When the broadcast feed quickly switched back to a camera at the TV station, it caught a WDBJ-TV anchor gaping in shock, her mouth open, unsure of what she’d just seen.
Marriage in futures
Both victims were in relationships with co-workers at the station.
On Twitter, Chris Hurst, a morning anchor at the station, said that he had been with Parker for almost nine months, which he described as the best nine months of their lives. He said that the couple had planned to get married.
Ward was engaged to WBDJ morning producer Melissa Ott, who had just taken another job; Wednesday was her last day producing the morning show.
Hours after the 6:45 a.m. shooting, Flanagan – a California native who used to work as a TV reporter at WDBJ-TV under the name Bryce Williams – apparently posted a video on Facebook and Twitter showing the shooting from the gunman’s perspective.
Thousands of social media users saw the shooting post. The accounts were swiftly taken down, but not before the Twitter account posted messages complaining that Parker and Ward had not treated Flanagan well at the workplace.
Station officials said Flanagan had been fired and escorted out of the TV station after a year of clashing with station employees.
‘Suicide note’ sent
ABC News reported that someone claiming to be Flanagan had faxed a 23-page document to the network, which they turned over to authorities, and that Flanagan had called the network almost two hours after the shooting to say that authorities are “after me” and “all over the place.”
In the manifesto – titled “A Suicide Note for Friends & Family” – the writer expressed admiration for the Virginia Tech and Columbine High School mass shooters. He said he had been the target of racial discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying at work. He said his attackers were White females and Black men, and disclosed that he was gay.
He was motivated, he said, by the Charleston, S.C., church shooting of nine African-Americans by a young White man in an apparent hate crime.
“Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15,” he wrote. “What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them.”
Flanagan had bounced in and out of the TV news business for years with a record of tense clashes with his co-workers and allegations of racism, and whose rage finally seemed to have spiraled out of control, according to his social media profiles and former co-workers.
“Vester was an unhappy man,” WDBJ-TV station manager Jeffrey A. Marks said on the air Wednesday afternoon. “We employed him as a reporter and he had some talent in that respect.”
However, Marks said, Flanagan quickly “gathered a reputation as somebody who was difficult to work with. … He was sort of looking out for people to say things that he could take offense to. And eventually after many incidents of his anger coming to the fore, we dismissed him, and he did not take that well, and we had to call police to escort him from the building.”
In 2013 when he was fired from WDBJ-TV, Flanagan warned a manager that there would be “negative consequences” for his firing and vowed that he would “make a stink and it’s going to be in the headlines,” court papers reveal.
The documents from a discrimination lawsuit Flanagan filed last year against the station also reveal that as he was escorted from the building by police, Flanagan handed a co-worker a cross and told them “you need this.”
The case runs more than 100 pages and details multiple angry run-ins Flanagan had with co-workers and supervisors in the months leading up to his dismissal.
Though the case was dismissed, Flanagan claimed his co-workers racially abused him by leaving a watermelon in the newsroom as part of “a carefully orchestrated effort by the photography staff to oust me – a conspiracy.”
But more than a dozen memos from his supervisors describe how Flanagan often did a poor job as a reporter, and how his colleagues often felt threatened by Flanagan’s “unprofessional” behavior.
Flanagan’s boss, Dan Dennison, wrote in a May 2012 memo to Flanagan: “On three separate occasions in the past month and a half you have behaved in a manner that has resulted in one of your co-workers feeling threatened or uncomfortable.”
His threatening behavior included berating a cameraman without good cause in front of a member of the public and cutting short an interview and having “stormed off in anger,” Dennison wrote.
As the problems escalated, Flanagan at one point suggested that he did not belong at the station.
Still, he took his dismissal poorly, the court records state.
He told one of the officers who led him out, “You know what they did? They had a watermelon back there for a week and basically called me a (n-word),” the records state.
Looked for work
Using his professional name, Bryce Williams, Flanagan this month posted on Facebook about seeking work. His LinkedIn page showed a slew of television station employers over the years as he moved from his native San Francisco Bay Area through Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, stints where on a number of occasions he was terminated for difficult behavior.
Many of his gigs were short, lasting two years or less. When WTWC, a Tallahassee NBC affiliate, came calling and hired him through a headhunter, he said he went but “wish I hadn’t!” He was there for a year.
Don Shafer, who now serves as news director for San Diego 6 on the CW, worked with Flanagan in Florida. He described the suspect as an odd man who was fired from WTWC after he became violent with several co-workers.
“We brought him in. He was a good on-air performer, a pretty good reporter, and then things started getting a little strange with him,” Shafer said on San Diego 6 on Wednesday morning.
Problems in Florida
Shafer said the combative behavior Flanagan displayed on social media after the shooting seemed familiar. Before he was fired, Flanagan allegedly “threatened to punch people out” in the newsroom and often berated other reporters, according to Shafer.
Flanagan filed a lawsuit in 2000 accusing WTWC producers of hurling racially charged insults at him. He claims he was referred to as a “monkey” by a high-ranking station employee and said discussions about homicide victims in the newsroom routinely took on an anti-African-American tone. Court records show the case was dismissed in 2001.
Matt Pearce, Lee Romney, James Queally and Natalie Schachar of the Los Angeles Times and Kim Janssen of the Chicago Tribune (TNS) all contributed to this report.