A disturbed mind brimming with rage, a professional media career and newly purchased guns. Vester Lee Flanagan II combined them into a real-time murder show that he choreographed in detail.
On Wednesday, Flanagan shot dead TV reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, in Roanoke, Virginia, while Parker was live on air on WDBJ via Ward’s camera, a video of the incident showed.
Flanagan, a former TV reporter himself who went by the pseudonym Bryce Williams, also wounded Vicki Gardner, head of a local chamber of commerce, whom Parker was interviewing.
As Flanagan gunned them down with six or seven shots, viewers were subject to it live, as were colleagues in WDBJ’s control room. Ward’s fiancee was one of them, said General Manager Jeff Marks.
Parker’s boyfriend also works at the news station and is coming to grips with the sudden loss.
“I’m trying to find the strength that she always said I had inside of me,” Chris Hurst said. “It doesn’t feel like I have it right now, but she told me all the time that she loved me to the ends of the Earth and that she felt safe with me.”
The couple had been dating for nine months but were already talking about marriage, he said.
“My soul has been crushed,” Parker’s father, Andy Parker, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “Her life was cut short. She had so much potential, and it’s senseless that her life and Adam’s life were taken by a crazy person with a gun.”
Andy Parker now feels called to become a crusader for laws that will make it harder for the mentally ill to purchase firearms.
A father’s vow
Parker was reluctant at first to speak to reporters about his daughter’s killing, but her career as a journalist changed his mind.
The first 24 hours after her death were filled with numbness, uncontrollable grief and anger, he told CNN on Thursday.
“She was kind and she was sweet and she touched everybody,” he said.
Andy Parker said that he wants to prevent a similar senseless death and that he will be a new voice in the gun control debate.
There has to be a mechanism to stop the mentally ill from getting guns, he said, and he called lawmakers “cowards” for not pushing through changes to address this issue.
“If I have to be a crusader on this, I’m not going to rest until I see something happen,” he said. “Let’s make it harder for people with mental issues to purchase guns.”
Flanagan, a fired former reporter
Flanagan knew Ward. The shooter was a former colleague, who stood in the limelight as a TV reporter. He resented being removed from it when WDBJ fired him two years ago, he later wrote.
He didn’t go nicely back then, and Ward recorded his emotional outburst on camera. Court documents from a discrimination suit that he filed show that Flanagan scoffed at Ward and flipped off the camera. Before police walked him out of the building, Flanagan also handed his manager a small wooden cross and said, “You’ll need this.”
Flanagan had not worked with Parker, the reporter he shot dead, but there were signs he resented her having been hired.
Flanagan planned meticulously to act out a lot of resentment violently and get back into the limelight before turning his gun on himself.
Flanagan, aka Williams, recorded video of his killing, which he spread on social media as he fled authorities. He appeared to have prepped his Twitter account days before the killing with a review of images from stations of his life.
During his flight, posts to Twitter appeared in the name of Bryce Williams, showing video recorded from the perspective of his gun barrel as his shots struck his victims. Many social media users were horrified by the scenes playing out before them on autoplay.
Both Facebook and Twitter quickly shut down the accounts.
While on the run, he sent a 23-page fax to ABC News under his reporter pseudonym with a few details about his career, long rants about his disappointments and a litany of people and circumstances he blamed. Parts were labeled as suicide notes.
Fled in a rental car
Flanagan had rented a car weeks before and used it in his getaway instead of his own car, a 2009 Ford Mustang.
Virginia State Police spotted the rental car on Interstate 66. A trooper tried to pull him over, police said, but he refused to stop and sped away before running off the road and crashing into an embankment.
Troopers found Flanagan inside with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Virginia State Police Sgt. F.L. Tyler told reporters. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead Wednesday afternoon.
Nasty workplace run-ins
Flanagan was known for a series of anger and behavioral problems in his workplaces.
As news broke about whom police sought in the killing, Don Shafer heard a familiar name on the radio. “Vester Flanagan. He worked for me,” he said to himself.
“The hair on the back of my neck went up,” said Shafer, who is now news director at XETV in San Diego.
When he hired Flanagan, Shafer was news director at WTWC in Tallahassee, Florida. The reporter who went by Bryce Williams made a nice impression on Shafer at first, but in 2000, he fired him over run-ins with colleagues.
“There were some issues with him and his personality that kind of spiraled down, and that’s why we had to get rid of him,” Shafer said.
Flanagan sued, alleging racial discrimination, but the suit was dismissed.
Later, he joined WDBJ but was later fired over performance issues. He sued again, once more alleging discrimination.
Fired, given a police escort
Court documents from that suit revealed the station had taken disciplinary action against Flanagan for months, met with him many times about angry behavior and told him to seek counseling.
Dan Dennison, former news director at WDBJ, said it was the toughest termination decision he’d ever handled. He had to call police to escort the reporter out.
“(Williams/Flanagan) had a level of a long series of complaints against co-workers nearly from the beginning of employment at the TV station,” Dennison said. He said they were never substantiated.
The firings and lawsuits were part of a mishmash of resentments that Flanagan faxed to ABC News, while police searched for him.
In a ranting note in his farewell fax, Flanagan tried to justify his killings.
“OK, so the big question is ‘Why?’ ” he wrote. “Well, after I compiled well over 100 pages chronicling the hurt in my life, I asked myself, ‘Why NOT?’ ”
And he talked about having a disturbed mind. “I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM!!!! at any moment,” he wrote.
He spent some time making allegations of racism, including against reporter Parker, whom he said “made racist comments” but got hired anyhow. There was no elaboration, and WDBJ General Manager Marks said the claim was unfounded.
“We’re outraged that any of the comments in that manifesto are taken the least bit seriously,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe that Flanagan and Parker crossed paths at WDBJ.
But Flanagan also blamed much of his misery on black men and white women and said he was “somewhat racist against whites, blacks and Latinos.”
He admired the shooters who massacred students at Columbine High School and at Virginia Tech, which lies about 25 miles away from Roanoke.
Legal gun purchases
Flanagan said he put a deposit down for a gun two days after the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in June and ranted against the accused shooter.
“As for Dylann Roof? You (deleted)! You want a race war (deleted)? BRING IT THEN YOU WHITE (deleted)!!!” the fax said.
Police recovered two guns from Flanagan, Glock 9 mm pistols he purchased legally.
Alison Parker and Adam Ward are the first journalists killed in the United States in the line of duty since 2007, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“I find my grief unbearable,” Parker’s father, Andy, said in a statement released on behalf of the family. “Alison was our bright, shining light, and it was cruelly extinguished by yet another crazy person with a gun.”
Hurst the WDBJ anchor, said he has not watched the video of the shooting.
Ward was engaged to be married to WDBJ producer Melissa Ott, a colleague said. Ward recently told her that he planned to get out of news and do something else.
Ryan Nobles, Pamela Brown, Jason Hanna, Ashley Fantz, Carol Costello, Brian Stelter, Mariano Castillo, Drew Griffin and Patricia DiCarlo contributed to this report.
Bryce Williams news reel: