ROANOKE — Hours after shooting a reporter and a cameraman on live TV, Vester L. Flanagan II took his own life when a Virginia state trooper closed in. But what authorities found in his car hints that he considered remaining on the run: a briefcase with three license plates, a wig, a shawl, an umbrella and sunglasses.
The details were contained in a request for a search warrant filed in a Virginia court Thursday, a day after the slayings of WDBJ7 reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward. Flanagan, a disgruntled former co-worker, also had a Glock pistol, ammunition, 17 stamped letters and a “to do” list in his rental car.
Authorities continued to investigate the shooting, while family, colleagues and residents of this southwest Virginia city tried to cope with the brazen incident — and figure out whether anything could have been done to stop it.
Parker’s distraught father spoke on national TV, calling for tougher gun-control laws. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) also called for greater gun control, sparking criticism from Republicans who said he was politicizing the tragedy. Officials at the TV station held a news conference, saying that while Flanagan had reacted angrily when he was fired in 2013 for erratic behavior and bad performance, workers who ran into him around town in the past 2
And inside the station, the close-knit news team kept reporting the story, juggling personal tragedy and professional duty. One anchor opened the day by saying, “We come to you this morning with heavy hearts.”
Parker was interviewing a local chamber of commerce leader, Vicki Gardner, about the most benign of events — the 50th anniversary of the Smith Mountain Lake tourist community — when the shots were fired early Wednesday. Parker, 24, and Ward, 27, died at the scene. Gardner was shot multiple times and was recovering Thursday, her husband said.
The case grew even more horrifying when, after Flanagan fled, he added a video he’d recorded of the shooting to his Twitter and Facebook accounts, along with Twitter postings claiming that he had been wronged by those at the station.
Flanagan, 41, who had a troubled career at several news outlets, also stopped to fax a 22-page letter to ABC News saying that he had suffered years of discrimination and that the June shootings at a Charleston, S.C., church sent him “over the top.” He called the document a “suicide note.”
He texted a friend after the killings, according to the search-warrant affidavit, saying he had done “something stupid.” The chase ended some 200 miles from the crime scene when he shot himself in the head, police said in the document.
On Thursday, WDBJ’s morning show went on the air just as it always had at 5 a.m. Evening anchor Chris Hurst was in front of the cameras, remembering Parker, his girlfriend. He said the reporter was planning to do a piece on hospice care shortly before her death. They both discussed how horrible it was to lose a loved one.
“What great things she could have done,” Hurst told the viewers.
Over the previous 24 hours, the colleagues sang “Amazing Grace,” they cried, but they still put out the news. They said they had no other choice.
“I know how [Parker] felt about her journalism,” Hurst said in an interview. “She wanted to get the truth out there, and that’s what we are doing.”
On air, there was a memorial to Ward, a montage of Parker and, as 6:45 a.m. approached, the moment Flanagan had opened fire, three anchors held hands. Anchor Kimberly McBroom told the audience, “This hurts so much.”
Shortly before, a weatherman choked back tears as he ran through the forecast. “You got this, partner,” McBroom told him.
Employees at the station wore maroon and turquoise ribbons made by a co-worker. Turquoise was Parker’s favorite color; maroon is one of the colors for Virginia Tech — Ward’s alma mater. During the afternoon news conference, the staff stood behind station officials as they spoke about the victims and the shooter.
News director Kelly Zuber said small moments of memory were the hardest for the colleagues — finding a candy wrapper left behind by Ward, or noticing the clothes he left in his car.
“I have watched anchors and reporters half an hour before a newscast be crying in the newsroom and then get on that set and deliver the news to the people of southern and southwestern Virginia,” Zuber said. “They cry, they hug, and then they get the job done.”
Across the state and beyond, the shootings prompted a renewed debate on gun control. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Flanagan legally purchased the Glock 9mm pistol used in the shootings from a federally licensed dealer in Virginia.
They said that a background check was conducted and that there was nothing in Flanagan’s criminal or mental-health history that should have prohibited the sale.
Parker’s father, Andy, appeared on several news outlets, including CNN, Fox and ABC, at one point saying he would become a “crusader” for gun control. “If anything can come of this, it’s taking up the mantle to once again try to do something to close loopholes so that crazy people don’t get guns,” Parker told ABC News on Thursday.
McAuliffe also took to the media to call on lawmakers to tighten gun laws, prompting ire from some Republicans who noted that one measure the governor has pushed for would not have prohibited Flanagan’s purchase.
Zuber said her reporters would continue to confront the task of covering a story that they have an all-too-personal stake in. The gun-control debate, she said, would be a part of that.
“I think our journalists are up for the challenge, and they realize that there will be a political side to this as gun control is discussed,” she said. “We have people in the newsroom that I’m sure that, if you polled them, would come down on one side or the other of that issue. And these are the people that are going to be covering this and getting both sides of that story.”
Zauzmer reported from Washington. Dana Hedgpeth in Washington and Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report.