Gunman who killed 2 former colleagues had long history of erratic workplace behavior
The disgruntled former television reporter who murdered two of his former colleagues during a live interview Wednesday morning had a long history of erratic behavior at various workplaces, including acting aggressively toward co-workers and claiming racism was behind uncomplimentary evaluations.
Vester Lee Flanagan, 41, killed himself while fleeing from police in northern Virginia hours after he fatally shot WDBJ reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27. A third victim of Flanagan, Vicki Gardner, was in stable condition early Thursday after undergoing surgery.
Flanagan, who reported under the name Bryce Williams, was hired by WDBJ, based in Roanoke, Va., in March 2012. He only lasted 11 months at the station, and The Roanoke Times reported that his outbursts alienated and terrified co-workers.
“He quickly gathered a reputation as someone who was difficult to work with,” station president and general manager Jeff Marks told reporters Wednesday. Justin McLeod, a former WDBJ reporter, told the paper that Flanagan “had anger management issues that went beyond anger management.”
“Photographers flat-out refused to work with him,” McLeod added. “He called them all racists. He threw that word around a lot. Nobody believed it.”
According to documents filed in connection with a racial discrimination suit against the station by Flanagan in 2014 and seen by The Daily Beast, WDBJ colleagues said he often made them feel “threatened or uncomfortable.” In one incident, Flanagan allegedly rounded on a station cameraman who was shooting b-roll footage using a shoulder-mounted camera.
“Iâ€™m not trying to be an [expletive], but the shaky video isnâ€™t going to work,” Flanagan allegedly told the cameraman before turning to an interview subject and saying, “Iâ€™m sorry sir, the footage he just shot is completely unusable.”
In November 2012, Flanagan was reprimanded by station bosses for wearing an Obama sticker, a violation of a non-partisan condition of his contract. But matters came to a head in February 2013, when Flanagan was told he was being dismissed.
According to court papers, an agitated Flanagan responded to the news by angrily saying, “Iâ€™m not leaving. Youâ€™re going to have to call the [expletive] police. Call the police, Iâ€™m not leaving. Iâ€™m going to make a stink and itâ€™s going to be in the headlines.”
Dan Dennison, the news director who hired and fired Flanagan, recalled in the documents that Flanagan’s ranting alarmed station employees, some of whom took shelter in a locked office. Dennison also said Flanagan handed him a small wooden cross and said, “You’ll need this.”
Police eventually escorted Flanagan out of the building, but he still lived in the area, which McLeod said caused disquiet among some of his former co-workers.
“A couple of months ago, somebody told me, ‘Bryce is still in town,'” McLeod told the Roanoke Times. “Several former colleagues were bothered by the fact that he still lived in town.”
WDBJ was the last stop for Flanagan in a reporting career that took him to places like Greenville, N.C., Midland, Texas, and Savannah, Ga. Tarcia Bush, a news producer who worked with Flanagan at WTOC in Savannah, recalled him as “a good guy” in an interview with WXIA in Atlanta.
“I just donâ€™t know what happened to him in the years that followed,” Bush said. “It was very disturbing to see him and that guy who did that this morning was not the guy I knew. I donâ€™t know this man.”
WTOC confirmed that Flanagan worked there between 1997 and 1999. Bush told WXIA that she didn’t remember why Flanagan left the station, but said, “I remember one thing about Vester, he was very ambitious … He wanted to go to the network level someday.”
Flanagan is less fondly remembered by former colleagues from WTWC, the NBC affiliate in Tallahassee, where his contract was terminated in 2000 for “bizarre behavior and fighting with other employees,” as his former boss put it.
Don Shafer, who currently works as news director for XETV in San Diego, described Flanagan as “a good on-air performer, a pretty good reporter. And then things started getting a little strange.”
Shafer said that Flanagan “threatened to punch people out, and he was kind of running fairly roughshod over other people in the newsroom.” Former WTWC colleagues told The Daily Beast that Flanagan behaved so poorly toward two female co-workers that the husband of one of the women “came this close to coming into the station and pounding the hell out of him.”
Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, who worked with Flanagan at the Florida station, recalled him to the Associated Press as “off-kilter” and someone who “never really made himself part of the team.”
Recalling one of a number of incidents, Wilmoth said co-workers meant to tease Flanagan for a story he did on a spelling bee that made it sound as if the winner would get a case of Girl Scouts, rather than cookies sold by the group.
“The next day, somebody had a Girl Scout emblem on their desk and we made some copies of it and taped them to his computer,” she said. “If he had only laughed, we would have all been friends forever. But he didn’t laugh … he got mad. And that was when I realized he wasn’t part of the collegiality that exists in a newsroom and he removed himself from it.”
After he was fired, Flanagan sued WTWC for employment discrimination, claiming that he and another black employee had been called “monkeys” and that a station manager had told him “blacks are lazy and do not take advantage of free money.” The case was eventually settled out of court.
Greg Sextro, a former WTWC producer, denied Flanagan’s claim that he was discriminated against, telling The Daily Beast that the station had been accommodating to Flanagan and colleagues had repeatedly offered to help him with his news writing.
“The fact that he kept his job was because he was an African-American gay man,” Sextro told the site. “Thatâ€™s pretty hard to say no to.”
Flanagan’s Tallahassee claims were echoed in his suit against WDBJ 14 years later, in which the future gunman claimed that a watermelon that frequently appeared around the newsroom was evidence of racial harassment. He also requested that the jury to hear his case be comprised of African-American women. The case was eventually dismissed.
After Flanagan was fired from WDBJ, he worked as a call center representative for UnitedHealthcare in Roanoke from late 2013 to November 2014, the company said. It is not known what he did for work between November 2014 and Wednesday morning.
However, there were signs that Flanagan had planned the killings well in advance. In the days before the shootings, he assembled photos of himself on Twitter and Facebook, as if preparing to introduce himself to a wider audience. ABC News said a man claiming to be Bryce Williams called repeatedly in prior weeks, saying he wanted to pitch a story and needed fax information. He sent ABC’s newsroom a 23-page fax two hours after the 6:45 a.m. shooting, calling himself a gay black man who had been mistreated by people of all races.
After the shooting, Flanagan tweeted that Parker had “made racist comments” and Ward had complained to human resources about him. Then, he posted video of the shooting online, showing him repeatedly firing at a screaming Parker as she tried to flee.
In addition, Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton told the Roanoke Times that Flanagan had made arrangements to rent the silver Chevrolet Sonic in which he ultimately killed himself more than 10 days before the shooting.
Late Wednesday, Flanagan’s family issued a statement expressing their “heavy hearts” and “deep sadness” and the shooting.
“Words cannot express the hurt that we feel for the victims.”