NEW YORK — 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 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. It was not clear Thursday whether Flanagan had been diagnosed with a mental illness.
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 said.
“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 less than a year later.
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 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.
On Thursday, WDBJ’s general manager said Flanagan had run-ins with many co-workers and was a poor performer.
Flanagan’s performance and behavior problems led to his bosses referring him to the company’s employee assistance program, Marks said.
The managers did not request he reach out to the program because of his mental state — they didn’t know about that — but because of his difficulty working with others, Marks said.
The final warning for the reporter came in December 2012, and he was fired in February 2013.
Flanagan caused a stir and police were called to escort him out, Marks said. Flanagan gave the news director at the time a cross and said “you’ll need this,” Marks said.
All of the claims that Flanagan made against the company and were investigated Marks said. Those investigations concluded that no reasonable person would have taken the alleged instances as discrimination or harassment, he said.
New details about Flanagan
Vester Flanagan owned several websites associated with gay porn, records show.
Flanagan registered at least seven domain names in 2007 and 2008, and solicited “attractive & muscular men” to model for live web cams.
Records obtained by CNN show Flanagan’s name and Vallejo, California, address were included in the domain registrations.
The shooter 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.