The man gripped a gun as he stood behind the news crew, watching them do a live broadcast. The journalists didn’t seem to notice that he had pointed the weapon right at them.
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 coworkers. 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, and Ward’s 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.
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, leading to calls for the social media services to suspend the account.
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.
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, the writer speaks of being the target of racial discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying at work. He said the attacks on him came from white women as well as from black men; and he discloses that he is gay.
He was motivated, he notes, by the Charleston church shooting of African American congregants by a young white man in an apparent hate crime. He also expressed admiration for the mass shooters who carried out attacks at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech.
“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, calling it his “tipping point.”
His letter, using excessive punctuation continued: “but my anger had been building steadily...I???ve been a human powder keg for a while???just waiting to go BOOM!!!!???”
Flanagan had bounced in and out of the TV news business for years with a record of tense clashes with his coworkers and allegations of racism. His rage finally seemed to have spiraled out of control, according to his social media profiles and former coworkers.
“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.”
Station colleagues mourn
Anchors at the TV-station held back their own tears as they interrupted live reports on the shooter’s whereabouts with memories of their co-workers. Both victims were in relationships with coworkers 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.
“She was the most radiant woman I ever met. And for some reason she loved me back,” he said on Twitter.
Ward was engaged to WDBJ-TV morning producer Melissa Ott, who had just taken another job; Wednesday was her last day producing the morning show.
Discussing the pair’s deaths on air, their coworkers’ voices shook with emotion, crying in the newsroom could be heard in the background.
“It’s really hard to even comprehend. We cover these things all the time, but it’s really tough,” said Jean Jadhon, an anchor at WDBJ-7. “It’s tough covering it when you don’t know the people, when it’s two of your own and so young…”
Parker, a 2012 graduate of James Madison University, earned a bachelor’s degree in media arts and design and was a reporter and editor for the student newspaper, The Breeze.
A colleague described Parker’s hand in a multiple-part broadcast on child neglect in the Virginia area. The first part of the broadcast aired Monday night.
Ward graduated from Virginia Tech in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in communication.
Leo Hirsbrunner, a meteorologist at the WDBJ-7, said that both journalists could make the newsroom come alive.
“Adam, talkin’ about Virginia Tech, this or that. Alison, you can hear her a mile away coming down the hall,” he said, swallowing as he spoke.
Suspect had history of work troubles
Using his professional name, Bryce Williams, Flanagan this month posted on Facebook about seeking work, using a chatty style that was peppered with bitter recollections of jobs gone bad.
His Facebook and LinkedIn pages were quickly taken down but the latter showed a slew of television station employers over the years as he moved from his native Bay Area through Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, stints where on a number of occasions he was terminated for difficult behavior.
He included a photo of himself anchoring at WNCT-TV in Greenville, N.C., where he worked for two years more than a decade ago. And he spoke of loving his work in Savannah, Ga., in the late 1990s, where, he says he “FELL IN LOVE.”
But 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 coworkers.
“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.
Flanagan was not using the Bryce Williams name when he worked in Tallahassee, but Shafer said the combative behavior he 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.
Calls seeking comment from the Tallahassee-based attorney who represented Flanagan in that suit were not immediately returned.
Another reporting job lasted three months, at KMID in Midland, Texas. There, Flanagan complained in his post, “The news director was a nightmare and complained I was TOO NICE!! LOL!! Seriously?”
He lauded KPIX-TV in San Francisco, where he got his start as an intern and was hired after six months as a production assistant. “I was liked there,” he wrote, “and was even able to come back after the Texas fiasco.… People were supportive but there were also some crazies.”
Flanagan grew up in Oakland. In a Twitter post one week ago, he included photos of himself as a young boy, saying that “As a Jehovah’s Witness, I wasn’t supposed 2b celebrating b-days but “mommy” was cool (most of the time) lol.” His family could not be reached for comment.
Pearce and Schachar reported from Los Angeles, Romney from San Francisco. Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report from Los Angeles.