The rambling, 22-page suicide note written by Vester L. Flanagan II called out a series of tormentors who had made his life unbearable: bosses, co-workers, even high school football coaches more than two decades ago.
“I have a right to be outraged!” the former television broadcaster, 41, wrote before going on to fatally shoot two former colleagues at Roanoke’s WDBJ7 on live television Wednesday and later killing himself.
But court records and interviews with more than a dozen former co-workers throughout Flanagan’s career indicated the contrary. He was well-liked when he arrived at TV stations. Older colleagues tried to mentor and support him. Complaints he made were taken seriously by superiors. Even his harshest critics seemed to want him to succeed.
In Savannah, Ga., co-workers put up with his eccentricities, such as when he wore a clown suit to work on Halloween and when he opened an ambulance door to try to interview a car crash victim strapped to a gurney. In Tallahassee — where Flanagan complained to his news director that colleagues were teasing him for being gay — the director met with staff members and told them to cut it out. In the southwestern Virginia city of Roanoke,where supervisors were trying to calm co-workers threatened by Flanagan’s outbursts, they wrote disciplinary memos to him that were framed in the context of trying to work things out.
“It’s not like he didn’t have people trying to help him,” said Michael Walker, who as weekend producer for WTWC in Tallahassee supervised Flanagan. “He was really self-absorbed — more self-absorbed than anyone I’ve ever met.”
The mind-set led to intense overreactions to even the most well-intentioned constructive criticism. He was quick to label white colleagues as racist, filing two discrimination lawsuits on that basis. He yelled, stomped, slammed doors and went so far as to ask a meteorologist after a post-broadcast dust-up whether she wanted to take things outside.
“He would just fly off the handle,” Walker said.
It is difficult to know how narcissism, insecurity and paranoia might have morphed into the darkness that led him to fatally shoot two people and nearly kill a third. Family members who are mentioned prominently in the suicide note have not spoken publicly about Flanagan, and no known friends have stepped forward to offer independent explanations about his mental state in recent years.
A woman who identified herself as Flanagan’s cousin said Thursday that the entire family is perplexed by the shootings.
“I saw him two, three years ago at my house for Thanksgiving,” said Guynell Smith, 70, of Vallejo, Calif. “He seemed okay. He was there with his partner. I didn’t really speak with him. All he was doing was eating.”
There certainly are indications that Flanagan was losing his grip on reality. In Roanoke last year, after suing the TV station that fired him, Flanagan wrote rambling letters directly to a judge saying that “it may be necessary to contact” the FBI to prove his claim. He also said he wanted to be judged by a jury that he described as his peers: African American women.
“I am a very, very persistent person and will utilize every resource I have to achieve justice,” he wrote.
After growing up in Oakland, Calif., and earning a broadcast journalism degree from San Francisco State University, Flanagan set forth into the fast-paced, competitive world of TV news. Supervisors must give their reporters and anchors constant feedback — aimed at addressing the reality that mistakes are seen instantly by thousands.
Flanagan interned at a San Francisco station, impressed colleagues with his eagerness, worked briefly in Texas and, by 1997, had landed a reporting post in Savannah.
“Personable and funny,” said Angela Williams-Gebhardt, one of his reporting colleagues at the time.
By his own telling — in the suicide note — Flanagan did well there.
“The news director and GM were AMAZING,” he wrote in the note. “The GM even complimented me when I obliterated the competition.”
He said he attracted attention after receiving a call from a headhunter about a weekend anchor job in Tallahassee. “Who wouldn’t jump at that chance?” Flanagan wrote.
And he did, starting in Florida in March 1999 as a reporter several days a week and as a weekend anchor. He was 25 years old.
“The sky was the limit,” said Walker, his weekend supervisor in Tallahassee.
Flanagan initially struck co-workers as funny and energetic, said Don Shafer, then the station’s news director. But the new anchor soon went to Shafer with a problem: Co-workers were teasing him about his sexuality.
“Zoom in on the gay guy,” one of his co-workers once said, Shafer recalled.
Shafer spoke to staff members and told them to stop. He believed that they did. But the barbs didn’t sit well with Flanagan.
“He became increasingly bitter and angry and blamed everybody else for his problems. ‘Why is everyone picking on me?’ He would say that,” Shafer said.
Walker said he didn’t recall any gay teasing, but he said that 16 years ago, with attitudes less accepting on the subject, teasing could have occurred. At the same time, Walker said, Flanagan had an outsize sense that everyone was out to get him: “It was: ‘That’s not my fault. It’s the lighting, or the director or the script.’ ”
After an 11 p.m. Sunday newscast, meteorologist Nancy Dignon told Walker that Flanagan had made a mistake on the air — referring to an “opening argument” in a trial instead of an “opening statement.” Flanagan overheard her, according to Walker and Dignon, and began screaming at Dignon.
“You’re not my news director! You’re not my general manager!” he yelled.
“You can’t talk to me like that,” Dignon said before walking away.
“We could take things outside,” Flanagan responded, according to Dignon and Walker.
By March 2000, Flanagan was gone from the station — for reasons that remain in dispute.
In Flanagan’s telling, the station retaliated because he told management that he’d been racially discriminated against. He filed a lawsuit, alleging, among the complaints, that a supervisor called him a “monkey” — claims that made local headlines.
“They told me, ‘This is war’ and there could be no compromise,” Flanagan told the Tallahassee Democrat.
In court filings, the station said that Flanagan was terminated because of poor performance, an unwillingness to take direction and financial pressures that prompted staff cutbacks.
The two sides reached a settlement, and the lawsuit was dismissed. Flanagan’s attorney, Marie Mattox, declined to comment on the terms, as did the station’s attorney and the station.
Walker never bought Flanagan’s claims of racial discrimination. Walker is African American, as is his wife, and they both worked at the station at the time. “We had a good, tightknit team,” Walker said.
Walker said he and his wife have worked at places with racist attitudes, even subtle ones. “We know discrimination when we see it,” he said. “It wasn’t there. It just wasn’t there.”
Shafer, the station’s news director, remembers that in the end, he personally escorted Flanagan out the door. The main emotion of his former hire: sadness.
Flanagan headed back to California and left the news business for two years — working as a customer service call taker for a large bank and then for a gas and electric utility — before landing a TV news job in 2002 in Greenville, N.C.
“Very funny, great with jokes,” remembers Patrick Moussignac, who worked at a competing station and socialized with Flanagan and other reporters. “It sounds cliched, but when he walked into a room, you knew he had arrived, and you’d tell people, ‘Get ready to laugh.’ ”
But like other stops before, Flanagan’s tenure in Greenville didn’t last. By 2004, according to a later résumé, he had taken the position of “communications director” for a company called NDG Interactive in Sacramento. He was there for eight years, according to his résumé, but there is little information about the company. In his suicide note, Flanagan alluded to another income stream. “I used to work as a male escort . . . made thousands,” he wrote. “Flew to Australia with a companion.”
In 2012, Flanagan applied to be a “multi-media journalist” at WDBJ, listing references in Sacramento, Greenville and Atlanta.
“I don’t think he was the strongest applicant we’ve ever had, but he passed muster of our news management team at that time,” said the station’s general manager, Jeff Marks. He said references are not always reliable these days.
“I think anybody can make positive references happen if they try hard enough,” he said.
Flanagan’s trouble at WDBJ — documented in news reports in recent days — started quickly, with supervisors critical of his performance as well as his combative attitude toward colleagues. The station forced him to seek help through an employee assistance program called Health Advocate, according to court records.
Even amid their criticism, Flanagan’s managers sought to encourage him — to, as one wrote — abide by his adage to fully engage viewers. “Remember your quote always: ‘We need them to need us!’ ” one of his bosses wrote in a memo to Flanagan on Dec. 24, 2012.
Just over a month later, the station fired Flanagan. A year after that, in 2014, Flanagan sued the station, claiming wrongful termination, retaliation, and racial and sexual harassment. Among the perceived offenses he cited in a letter to the judge: Colleagues allegedly placed a watermelon where he would notice it when entering and exiting the building.
But two managers have said that the watermelon was left near the door after a picnic until it was taken home by someone. Marks said there was no racial harassment of Flanagan or discrimination against him.
“I am absolutely certain that nothing like that happened in this case,” he said, “and that it was in the imagination and perhaps the preconception and pre-planned attitudes of the fellow in this case.”
Paul Duggan, Justin Jouvenal, Peter Hermann, Wesley Lowery and Jennifer Jenkins in Washington and Sarah Tan in Oakland contributed to this report.