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Virginia TV station 'at a loss' to explain why fired worker shot two ex-colleagues on air

Virginia TV station 'at a loss' to explain why fired worker shot two ex-colleagues on air
WDBJ-TV anchor Kimberly McBroom talks with guest anchor Steve Grant during the station's early morning newscast in Roanoke, Va., the day after a pair of colleagues were shot to death while on the air. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

As the cameras rolled Thursday, WDBJ-TV morning anchor Kimberly McBroom reached out to hold her colleagues' hands.

It was 6:45 a.m., and McBroom told her viewers in southwest Virginia that the staff at the Roanoke TV station was approaching a moment "none of us will forget."

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"It was yesterday around this time that we went live to Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward," McBroom said, tremors of emotion creeping into her voice as she and other station staffers held a 30-second, on-air moment of silence.

Parker, 24, and Ward, 27, were shot to death on live television in a shocking ambush by one of their former co-workers at the television station, Vester Lee Flanagan II, 41, who went by the on-air name of Bryce Williams.

McBroom was the anchor on duty at the station Wednesday morning when the pair were shot and Ward's camera tumbled to the ground, capturing Flanagan marching forward with a gun in his hand before the feed cut back to an astonished McBroom at the anchor desk.

The pair had been interviewing a local Chamber of Commerce leader, Vicki Gardner, who was wounded but is expected to survive.

Flanagan later shot and killed himself, but not before posting video he took of the shooting on Twitter and Facebook. He also apparently sent an angry manifesto to ABC News complaining about workplace bullying and praising the mass shootings at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School.

In the rental car Flanagan crashed after a police chase, investigators found multiple license plates, a wig and 17 stamped letters, according to a search inventory released by officials Thursday.

Almost every element of Flanagan's attack, which seemed maximized for public shock value, posed a challenge to journalism itself.

Across the nation, Flanagan's shooting and social media posts launched debates over whether media outlets should amplify the thoughts and actions that a killer specifically wanted the public to see.

Some news outlets declined to show the full videos. Others decided to republish the images, including the New York Daily News, which covered its Thursday front page with three freeze frames showing the moment Flanagan opened fire on a visibly shocked Parker. With its front-page story, the Los Angeles Times published one freeze-frame image of Flanagan's hand pointing a gun at the reporter.

Locally, the shooting tested the emotional and professional limits of WDBJ, where both victims were in romantic relationships with other staff members.

The station has carried on under extraordinary circumstances.

Reporters have reported about co-workers, while live shots have been canceled out of an abundance of caution. Sobs have been heard off-set as staffers processed their emotions on-air. After Flanagan shot himself but before he died at a hospital, the station's manager admitted on camera Wednesday that he wasn't sure whether he wanted Flanagan to live or die.

Flanagan's stint at the station was tumultuous, according to court records from a discrimination lawsuit he filed against it in 2014. The case was dismissed.

Flanagan had been hired in March 2012 as a WDBJ reporter after several years out of the industry, and worked at the station less than a year. In internal memos made public as part of the lawsuit, the station's then-news director, Dan Dennison, detailed several episodes in which Flanagan had used hostile dialogue and body language with co-workers, especially photographers.

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In one July 2012 memo, Dennison ordered Flanagan to undergo employee counseling or lose his job for creating a "hostile work environment," which officials said Flanagan completed.

Flanagan was fired in February 2013 for poor news judgment and poor relationships with his colleagues, according to the station.

Another memo detailed his stormy exit from the TV station, which prompted managers to call police to escort him out. Flanagan threw a wooden cross at one manager and said, "You're going to need this." Flanagan, who was black, also accused the station of racism, alleging that staffers kept a watermelon in a hallway to taunt him.

On his way out of the station, Flanagan flipped off Ward, who was recording the incident, and told the photographer to "lose your big gut," according to the memo.

At a news conference outside the station Thursday, General Manager Jeffrey A. Marks said none of Flanagan's complaints of discrimination was substantiated by management, by a court or by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with which Flanagan lodged an unsuccessful complaint.

In the two years since the firing, Flanagan had been seen around town but did not talk to or confront any station employees, Marks said.

"We are still at a loss to figure out what happened to him in those 21/2 years," Marks said, flanked by a couple dozen station employees wearing ribbons honoring Ward and Parker. "But most of our time we are spending focused on the results of his actions yesterday, the loss of Adam and Alison, and our bond with the community, which has been so strong for the last 30 hours or so."

The station, which has vowed to cover the aftermath of the shooting with fairness, has received support from community members dropping off flowers and meals and from journalism outlets around the world.

Three television stations in Springfield, Mo., and Wichita, Kan., have sent five journalists to help, according to Brian A. McDonough, the general manager of KY3 in Springfield.

At least one of those employees, KY3 anchor Steve Grant, was already on air Thursday as McBroom, the morning anchor, paid tribute to her colleagues and their final story, a feature about the 50th anniversary of the man-made Smith Mountain Lake, about 25 miles southeast of Roanoke.

"It was during a conversation with [Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Director] Vicki Gardner — about another reason why we love living here — when the peacefulness of our community was shattered," McBroom said.

"As we approach that moment, we want to pause and reflect, and we want to share with you once again what made these two so special, not just to us, but to all of our hometowns that WDBJ-7 serves," she said.

During the moment of silence, the feed switched to photos of Parker and Ward, both smiling in their official station portraits.

Below their pictures, at the bottom of the screen, a news ticker continued to scroll details of other breaking stories. The world of news hadn't slowed down, and neither would WDBJ-TV.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattDPearce

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