Long before he filmed himself gunning down a TV reporter and cameraman during a live broadcast Wednesday, the man identified as the killer traced a twisted and volatile career path that saw him fired from at least two stations for conflicts with co-workers, leaving memories of an “off-kilter” loner easily angered by office humor.
When the shooter, identified by authorities as Vester Lee Flanagan II, was fired from Roanoke, Virginia, station WDBJ in 2013, he had to be escorted out of the building by local police “because he was not going to leave willingly or under his own free will,” the station’s former news director, Dan Dennison, said in an interview with a Hawaii station, Hawaii News Now (KHNL/KGMB).
Flanagan, 41, had “a long series of complaints against co-workers nearly from the beginning of employment at the TV station,” said Dennison, now an official with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. “All of these allegations were deemed to be unfounded.” Though the claims were along racial lines, he said, “we did a thorough investigation and could find no evidence that anyone had racially discriminated against this man.” The victims of Wednesday’s shooting — reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27 — were white; Flanagan was black.
Hours after he shot his former co-workers then posted video of the attack to his Facebook page, Flanagan crashed a vehicle and shot himself. He died at a hospital later Wednesday, authorities said.
The conflict described by Dennison in many ways echoed another, in 2000, when Flanagan was fired from a Tallahassee, Florida, television station after threatening fellow employees, a former supervisor said.
Flanagan “was a good on-air performer, a pretty good reporter and then things started getting a little strange with him,” Don Shafer, the former news director of Florida’s WTWC-TV said Wednesday in an interview broadcast on Shafer’s current employer, San Diego 6 The CW.
Shafer said managers at the Florida station fired Flanagan because of his “bizarre behavior.”
“He threatened to punch people out and he was kind of running fairly roughshod over other people in the newsroom,” said Shafer, who did not immediately return a call from AP for comment.
Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, who worked with Flanagan at the Florida station, recalled him as “off-kilter” and someone who “never really made himself part of the team.”
Recalling one of a number of incidents, Wilmoth said that 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.”
In 2000, Flanagan sued the Florida station over allegations of race discrimination, claiming that a producer called him a “monkey” in 1999 and that other black employees had been called the same name by other workers. Flanagan also claimed that an unnamed white supervisor at the station said black people were lazy because they did not take advantage of scholarships to attend college. The parties later reached a settlement.
Flanagan grew up in Oakland, California, where he was a homecoming prince one year at Skyline High School. Virgil Barker, who grew up on the same tree-lined street, recalled his childhood friend Wednesday with fondness.
“I know you want to hear that he was a monster, but he was the complete opposite,” Barker said. “He was very, very loving.”
Barker said he had lost touch with Flanagan over the years but remained close to Flanagan’s sister, who still lives in the family’s home across the street.
No one answered the door Wednesday morning at the white stucco house, with fruit trees in the front yard overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Flanagan graduated from San Francisco State University. A former classmate, Pamela Rousseau of Danville, Calif., said Flanagan was a bit “flamboyant” and eager to be the front man when presenting students’ findings.
Before and after his work in Florida, Flanagan, who also appeared on-air using the name Bryce Williams, worked at a series of stations around the country.
They included a stint in 1996 at KPIX, a San Francisco station, where a spokeswoman confirmed he worked as a freelance production assistant. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as a general assignment reporter at WTOC-TV in Savannah, Georgia. From 2002 to 2004, he worked as a reporter and anchor at WNCT-TV in Greenville, North Carolina, general manager and vice president John Lewis said.
A former co-worker at the California station, Barbara Rodgers, recalled him only vaguely as “a young, eager kid out of journalism school,” who “just wanted to be on TV and to do a good job.”
Working in Georgia years ago, Flanagan was “tall, good looking and seemed to be really nice, personable and funny,” said a former fellow reporter, Angela Williams-Gebhardt, who now lives in Ohio. The station’s former news director, Michael Sullivan, said Flanagan was relatively inexperienced, but did a decent job, without any apparent problems.
But at Roanoke’s WDBJ, Flanagan “got in lots of arguments with people,” said LaRell Reynolds, a former production worker at the station. “I don’t think anyone liked the guy.”
After managers fired Flanagan, he worked as a call center representative for UnitedHealthcare in Roanoke from late 2013 to November 2014, the company said.
But in the days before the shootings, Flanagan assembled photos of himself on Twitter and Facebook, as if preparing to introduce himself to a wider audience. The postings continued after the shooting, when he tweeted that Parker had “made racist comments” and Ward had complained to human resources about him. Then, Flanagan posted video of the shooting online, showing him repeatedly firing at a screaming Parker as she tried to flee.
In a rambling 23-page letter sent by fax Wednesday to ABC News soon after the shooting, Flanagan said he’d been discriminated against both for being black and gay. He listed grievances dating back to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech and the more recent massacre of worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while,” Flanagan wrote in the note, “just waiting to go BOOM!!!!”
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesman Thomas Faison said Flanagan legally bought the gun used to kill Alison Parker and Adam Ward. They were doing a live broadcast Wednesday morning when they were shot to death.
Faison did not say where or when Flanagan bought the gun. In his purported manifesto faxed to ABC News, Flanagan said he decided to buy a gun after the Charleston church massacre.
The handgun can be seen in a video of the shooting that Flanagan posted on social media. Flanagan later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
President Barack Obama says the fatal on-air shooting of two Virginia TV station employees is heartbreaking.
Obama says “it breaks my heart every time” he reads or hears about these kinds of incidents.
“What we know is that the number of people who die from gun-related incidents around this country dwarfs any deaths that happen through terrorism,” he said.