On March 27, 2014, Vester L. Flanagan II sued WDBJ-7 in Roanoke City General District Court, seeking $25,000 in unpaid overtime and for alleged racial and sexual harassment, according to court records. The suit was dismissed four months later, but not before Flanagan’s assertions forced the station to submit detailed documents from Flanagan’s personnel file to the court.
The documents tell a story of a 10-month work relationship fraught with friction almost from the start — with employees concerned with behavior described as threatening or strange. “I’m not entirely sure where his head is at,” a manager wrote on Dec. 24, 2012. Things culminated in Flanagan being fired on Feb. 1, 2013.
“He repeated . . . his feeling that firing him would lead to negative consequences for me personally and for the station,” a manager would later write in a memo.
The police were called to escort Flanagan out of the building and the newsroom was cleared out. (The lawsuit documents refer to Flanagan by the name he used on air — Bryce Williams.)
“Two police officers came into the newsroom,” a manager wrote. “They told Bryce that the company wanted him off the property and he needed to leave.” On the way out, according to the documents, Flanagan gave a small wooden cross to his boss and said: “You’ll need this.”
And the documents also speak to what seemed to be Flanagan’s tenuous grasp of reality. Last spring, as the lawsuit was still active, he sent a letter to Roanoke District Judge Francis W. Burkart advancing conspiracy theories, stating that he wasn’t backing down and requesting that he be judged by a panel of females.
“I am neither intimidated nor fearful,” he wrote. “While I may not be an expert with regards to case law and legal terms, I AM an expert when it comes to integrity, character and the difference between right and wrong.
“I am hereby requesting a trial which will be heard by a jury of my peers. I would like my jury to be comprised of African American women.”
Things at the station didn’t start off so strained for Flanagan. In his application for the position, Flanagan said he’d posted a 3.7 GPA at San Francisco State University and 3.5 GPA in high school in Oakland, Calif. He was offered a reporting job at $36,000 a year. And on March 20, 2012, the staff received word of his hire.
“We are pleased to announce that Bryce Williams will be joining WDBJ7 as a multi-media journalist/general assignment reporter,” the announcement began.
The memo said their new colleague had a BA in broadcast journalism, nearly 10 years experience in the field and “a broad background for covering news.”
But tensions quickly surfaced.
On May 31, 2012, news director Dan Dennison wrote Flanagan a detailed, seven-paragraph memo expressing his concerns and sent a copy to Flanagan’s personnel file.
“On three separate occasions in the past month and a half, you have behaved in a manner that has resulted in one of more of your co-workers feeling threatened or uncomfortable,” Dennison wrote.
In one of those incidents — just 30 days after Flanagan had started at the station — he got into a “heated confrontation” with another reporter inside a station live truck. “You lost your temper and used verbal and body language that left co-workers feeling both threatened and extremely uncomfortable,” Dennison wrote.
Two months later, he wrote another memo to Flanagan.
“There is no doubt in my mind that you want to do well at WDBJ7 and have an overarching desire to please,” he wrote. “However your behaviors continue to cause a great deal of friction with your co-workers, particularly your photographer teammates. You must make improvements immediately or you will face termination of employment.”
There is evidence from the documents that he performed well in some areas. In an Aug. 6, 2012, performance review, he was given an “exceeds expectations” rating for his enthusiasm and his diligence at work. But he scored the lowest ranking — “unacceptable” — for the level of respect he afforded his colleagues.
Problems continued and on Dec. 24, 2012, he was given another sharp write-up. One of his problem areas was listed directly as “on-air performance.”
Flanagan pushed back, alleging possible racial discrimination. But at least according to one memo, his evidence seemed vague, something about a colleague saying he had been “swinging” by a place.
By Feb. 1, 2013, station management had decided to fire him.
It went so poorly — with Flanagan slamming a door, with the police being called — that several managers wrote reports of what they saw.
“Dan explained that Bryce was being terminated due to unsatisfactory job performance and inability to work as a team member,” one of the managers wrote. “Bryce asked if this was the last day. Dan said it was. Monica presented a severance letter. Bryce said that was unacceptable and used the term ‘bull----.’ He said, ‘Here’s what you’re going to give me,’ and wrote ‘three months’ on the letter. Bryce said, ‘You better call police because I’m going to make a big stink. This is not right.’ ”
Another manager wrote about him leaving the office quickly: “Bryce said he had to go to the bathroom, stood up abruptly, stormed out of the room, and slammed the door. This caused members of the sales team to take shelter in a locked office.”
After police were called and started leading him out, Flanagan flipped off coworkers and told one of them he needed to “lose your big gut.”
Later, that same day after Flanagan had left, employees were told to call 911 if they saw him on company property. An off-duty officer would also be spending at least two days on the premises, employees were told.
More than a year later, in March 2014, Flanagan sued the station. He followed that up with letters to Burkart, the judge, specifying how he had been treated.
He wrote about employees placing a watermelon at different parts of the newsroom. “The watermelon would appear, then disappear, then appear and disappear again . . . only to appear yet again.”
He requested a slew of records and documents, including the personnel records of more than 35 former colleagues, and records that could track electronic badge movements in the newsroom. He said he was intimidated by a female employee who was holding a pen “which could have been used as a weapon.” He said how one manager had told him several times he was a big man.
“Because I am a large Black man I am a threat?” he wrote to the judge. “That’s racist in and of itself.”
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.