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Two WDBJ jounalists dead after shooting at Smith Mountain Lake

Two WDBJ jounalists dead after shooting at Smith Mountain Lake

From the Top 10 most-read stories of 2015 series

2 WDBJ-7 journalists killed; police say gunman is former WDBJ reporter.

Vester Lee Flanagan II’s anger had lurked within him for years.

The staff at WDBJ-TV (Channel 7) had become well-acquainted with it, too — he was hired to report weekend news in 2012, under the name Bryce Williams, but was let go just 11 months later.

“Bryce had anger-management issues that went beyond anger management,” said Justin McLeod, a former WDBJ reporter. “There was something not right with him.”

WDBJ President and General Manager Jeff Marks described Flanagan as “an unhappy man” who upon his firing had to be escorted from the station by police.

Early Wednesday, more than two years after officers led him from the building, Flanagan wielded his anger in terrible and horrifying ways. He fatally shot two staff members and wounded a chamber of commerce official during a live broadcast at Bridgewater Plaza on Smith Mountain Lake.

Both reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were killed. Vicki Gardner, 62, head of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, was listed in stable condition after undergoing emergency surgery at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

Flanagan fled Bridgewater Plaza in his car and was apprehended about five hours later in Fauquier County, where his car ran off Interstate 66 following a chase. Police said they found him with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and he died from his injuries about 1:30 p.m. at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church.

In the time between the shootings and Flanagan’s death, a disturbing twist emerged. Just after 11 a.m. social media postings appeared — on a Twitter account bearing the name Bryce Williams — showing videotaped footage of the attack, recorded from the gunman’s perspective.

“I filmed the shooting see Facebook,” read a tweet that went up about 11:10 a.m. from the account @bryce_williams7.

The first video post showed a hand pointing a pistol just a few feet from the WDBJ team, which was unaware of his presence. In the second clip, the close-range gunman opens fire on Parker, who turns and runs.

Text tweets, posted on that same account, appeared to voice grievances against the reporter and cameraman.

“Adam went to hr on me after working with me one time,” one tweet reads. A series of separate tweets posted at that time read: “Alison made racist comments ... EEOC report filed ... they hired her after that???”

The Twitter and Facebook accounts on which these messages appeared were suspended within the hour.

Authorities apprehended Flanagan about 15 minutes later.

Police say he previously had been driving a Ford Mustang, which they found abandoned at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport, but at some point he switched to a rented silver Chevrolet Sonic.

Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton said Flanagan made arrangements to rent that vehicle more than 10 days ago.

Flanagan graduated from San Francisco State University in 1995 with a degree in television and radio journalism. He worked at stations in Tallahassee, Florida; Greenville, North Carolina; Midland, Texas; and Savannah, Georgia.

He clashed with other employers as well. In 2000, he filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Tallahassee station.

But the worst of his troubles was still to come.

In March 2012, Flanagan came to Roanoke and WDBJ.

“He quickly gathered a reputation as someone who was difficult to work with,” Marks said.

“Eventually, after many incidents of his anger coming forth, we dismissed him. He did not take that well.”

In May 2014, Flanagan sued WDBJ in Roanoke General District Court, seeking money he claimed he was owed by the station plus additional damages. His suit alleged discrimination and named most of the staff. A judge dismissed the case in July 2014.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spokeswoman Kimberly Smith-Brown said she could not confirm whether the agency had complained about WDBJ on Flanagan’s behalf. She said the agency is restricted by law from acknowledging or discussing complaints unless the EEOC has sued a specific employer. According to information on the EEOC website, the agency has not sued WDBJ.

Susan Bahorich, who worked as a WDBJ reporter from 2004 until last year, said she had an “encounter” at the station with Flanagan that left her “worried about my safety.”

Now a TV reporter in Richmond, Bahorich said a Roanoke police officer called her Wednesday morning to ensure she was safe and let her know that Flanagan was at large.

“They told me they were looking for him,” she said.

“Photographers flat-out refused to work with him,” said McLeod, who is now the Roanoke City Schools spokesman. “He called them all racists. He threw that word around a lot. Nobody believed it.”

McLeod said current employees told him they were concerned when they learned Flanagan remained in Roanoke following his firing.

“A couple of months ago, somebody told me, ‘Bryce is still in town,’” McLeod said. “Several former colleagues were bothered by the fact that he still lived in town.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, Dan Dennison, the news director at WDBJ from 2011 to 2013, when Flanagan was hired, would not elaborate on the former reporter’s workplace behavior. Dennison told a TV station in Honolulu, Hawaii, that Flanagan had “a long series of complaints against co-workers nearly from the beginning of employment at the TV station.”

Now an official with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Dennison told the station police were called the day Flanagan was fired “because he was not going to leave willingly or under his own free will.”

“All of these allegations were deemed to be unfounded. And they were largely … along racial lines, and we did a thorough investigation and could find no evidence that anyone had racially discriminated against this man.”

Dennison stood by his comments Wednesday in a brief conversation with The Roanoke Times.

Flanagan claimed in a 2000 lawsuit against WTWC-TV in Tallahassee that he and another black employee were referred to as “monkeys” and that a supervisor once told him “blacks are lazy.”

The lawsuit was settled in 2001 under terms that were not disclosed in court records. Neither an attorney who represented Flanagan nor WTWC officials returned calls.

Flanagan told the Tallahassee Democrat at the time that his employers were arrogant and retaliatory.

“They told me, ‘This is war,’ and there would be no compromise,” he said.

On Wednesday, an ABC News official said its New York office received a 23-page fax from someone identifying himself as Bryce Williams.

The Associated Press reported that the rambling letter listed a long string of grievances, including the June shootings of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while,” Flanagan wrote in the note, “just waiting to go BOOM!!!!”

It remains unclear how Flanagan knew Parker and Ward were working at Bridgewater Plaza on Wednesday morning, although WDBJ frequently promotes details about its upcoming stories.

A worker with Smith Mountain Lake developer Willard Cos., who asked not to be identified, said he was having coffee in nearby Burnt Chimney about 6:30 a.m. when a car pulled up and the driver, who appeared calm, asked for directions to Bridgewater Plaza.

That driver was Flanagan, the worker later said.

The attack on Parker, Ward and Gardner was partially caught on Ward’s video camera and broadcast live during WDBJ’s “Mornin’” program.

In the footage that aired, Parker’s interview with Gardner is interrupted by the sound of gunfire. Parker screams and runs. The camera falls but photographs the feet of an unidentifiable figure advancing toward the lens. At that point, the show’s producers cut back to “Mornin’” anchorwoman Kimberly McBroom and terminated the remote feed.

According to July’s most recent viewership numbers from the Nielsen Co., the “Mornin’” program is watched by an average of 37,000 people in the Roanoke-Lynchburg market from 6:30 to 7 a.m. It is the most-watched local morning news program in the market.

Marks addressed the shootings in a live broadcast at 8:45 a.m.

He said Parker and WDBJ evening co-anchor Chris Hurst were in a relationship and Ward was engaged to WDBJ producer Melissa Ott, who recently took a new job and had marked her last day at the station. Ward and Ott had planned to leave the area soon.

McBroom, who worked with Parker during many early-morning broadcasts, said, “We’ve lost two members of our family. [Others have] lost a daughter, a son, a fiancee.”

About 9:30 a.m., Hurst tweeted that although they had kept their relationship somewhat private, he and Parker had recently moved in together.

“This was supposed to be a happy time for Alison and myself, for Adam and Melissa,” Hurst said Wednesday afternoon. “And now it’s just devastating.”

Evening anchor Jean Jadhon said during the announcement that the staff was “in a state of shock here.

“People in the newsroom are crying. It’s tough covering [a shooting] when you don’t know the people [involved]. When it’s two of your own —”

Staff researcher Belinda Harris and staff writers Laurence Hammack, Ralph Berrier, Tiffany Stevens, Sara Gregory, Tiffany Holland, Carmen Forman, Jeff Sturgeon, Matt Chittum, Duncan Adams, Casey Fabris and Karen Dillon contributed to this story.


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