Moments after Vester Lee Flanagan II was fired from a television news station in Roanoke, he exploded into so much rage that frightened co-workers locked themselves in an office and a manager called police to forcefully remove him.
As he was escorted out, Flanagan, 41, a reporter known to viewers as Bryce Williams, gave a small wooden cross to his boss and said, “You’ll need this,” according to a witness’s account of his February 2013 firing in response to a lawsuit he filed alleging wrongful termination.
Flanagan’s contentious 10-month reporting stint at Southwestern Virginia’s CBS affiliate, WDBJ (Channel 7), ended in much the same way several jobs had since 2000: with a trail of colleagues with whom he did not get along, poor job-performance evaluations citing his volatile behavior and at least two lawsuits alleging racial discrimination and unfair treatment.
On Wednesday morning, Flanagan shot and killed two of the station’s journalists, Alison Parker, a 24-year-old reporter, and Adam Ward, a 27-year-old cameraman, and wounded Vicki Gardner, head of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, during a live broadcast, police said. Flanagan later killed himself while being chased by police, authorities said.
Ward had been at the station when Flanagan was fired and aimed a camera at him as he flipped off the newsroom during his forced exit. The station manager, Jeff Marks, said Parker was an intern when Flanagan worked at the station. He could not recall a specific run-in with her but said, “He had conflicts with so many people here, I don’t remember all the specific ones.”
Marks said Flanagan, who authorities say posted a video online that he took of the shooting, was “a man with a lot of anger.” He added: “It came out in his relationships. He had trouble working with fellow employees and he had a short fuse.” Marks denied the lawsuit’s allegations of racial animus.
In the suit, which was dismissed in 2014, Flanagan professed to have photos of a watermelon that he said appeared during a meeting with photographers. “The watermelon would appear, then disappear, then appear and disappear again, only to appear yet again,” he wrote. He urged the judge to pick a jury of his peers — which he defined as African American women.
A precise motive for the killings remained elusive Wednesday, although Flanagan apparently offered a broad spectrum of grievances in a 22-page suicide note that ABC News said it received by fax two hours after the shooting. The document reads more like a rant, contradictory and paradoxical, extolling mass killers, blaming his father for not being there after he was fired from a job in Florida on one page but praising him for his support on another. It expresses hatred for black males and white females whom he said he was “attacked by” but claims that the nine African Americans killed in the Charleston church shooting was his breaking point, writing that he put a deposit on a gun two days after the massacre.
“What sent me over the top was the church shooting,” says the suicide note, a full version of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “And my hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them.” It was not clear whose initials he was referring to. While also complaining that he was “shunned” for being gay, Flanagan lauds Virginia Tech mass killer Seung Hui Cho and expresses admiration for the Columbine High School killers. “Cho was brilliant and smooth,” the note reads. A cousin confirmed that Flanagan was gay.
Flanagan also said his firing from Roanoke caused “an awful chain of events,” including the death of his two cats that appears to have occurred at his hands. “I drove to the forest . . . and helped them exit. I’ll spare the details.”
Flanagan grew up in East Oakland and graduated in 1995 from San Francisco State University. Roxane Barker, 54, lived across the street, and like others, she called him “Little Vester.” She said the Flanagans were the third black family to move into the mostly white neighborhood.
“It was not easy,” she recalled. “Racism was very prevalent while he was growing up.”
Barker said Vester Flanagan Sr. at one point was a dean at San Francisco State University. His wife, Betty, was a schoolteacher, according to an online obituary.
Said Baker: “We are in complete disbelief. He was a high achiever, goal-oriented, kind and gentle person. That’s who I know. I don’t know what transpired in his life in his later years.”
On Wednesday night, the family of Vester Flanagan Sr. sent a statement to San Francisco-area TV station KRON, which was addressed to “Dear News WDBJ7.”
“It is with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we express our deepest condolences to the families” of Parker and Ward, said the statement, which also offered prayers for Gardner’s recovery. “Words cannot express the hurt that we feel for the victims.”
Flanagan’s first job was as an intern at KPIX in San Francisco for five months in 1993. “He was just a young, eager kid out of journalism school and like so many other interns and new employees who came through there in my 30 years at KPIX,” Barbara Rodgers, a 30-year veteran of the CBS-5 Eyewitness News station, posted on Facebook.
Dawn Baker, who anchors the newscast at WTOC in Savannah, Ga., said she remembers Flanagan as a nice, if goofy and at-times aloof reporter during his two years with the station in the late 1990s. But even then, she said, he had a habit of bucking his bosses while practicing questionable journalism.
During his time in Savannah, Flanagan used his legal name professionally, but Baker said eventually his colleagues found out he was using the name “Bryce Williams” socially.
“He held up his hands and said ‘Bryce Williams,’ and made this motion like he was seeing it in lights: ‘That sounds so Hollywood,’ ” Baker said.
But despite his oddities, Baker said that Flanagan was one of two colleagues who checked in on her daily after one of her cousins fell into a coma and that he later circulated a card and brought her a condolence plant.
“It’s so difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that someone who could have been so compassionate and caring could do something that’s so unexplainable,” Baker said.
It appears that Flanagan’s problems began at WTWC in Tallahassee, Fla., in 1999. He worked there 13 months, and he alleged in a lawsuit that he filed after he was fired that a producer had called him a “monkey” and said that “blacks are lazy.” He also alleged that employees made racial comments about a black murder suspect, which he said was evidence of discriminatory behavior.
The station denied the allegations and said he never reported any racist behavior. Managers said in response to the suit, which the station settled, that Flanagan was fired for poor performance, misbehavior toward colleagues and the use of profanity.
Don Shafer, news director at XETV in San Diego, said on the air Wednesday that he had hired Flanagan at WTWC and later fired him for chronic “bizarre behavior.”
“We brought him in, he was a good on-air performer, a pretty good reporter,” he told viewers, “and then things started getting a little strange with him.”
Mark Berman, J. Freedom du Lac, Mary Pat Flaherty, Caitlin Gibson, Dana Hedgpeth, Arelis R. Hernández, Jennifer Jenkins, Wesley Lowry, Dan Morse, Antonio Olivo, Jenna Portnoy, Michael E. Ruane, T. Rees Shapiro, Victoria St. Martin, Julie Tate, Laura Vozzella and Mason Adams contributed to this report.