The suspect in the fatal shooting of two television journalists during a live broadcast in Southwest Virginia died Wednesday afternoon at a Washington area hospital after reportedly shooting himself during a chase on a highway west of the city.
Authorities say Vester Lee Flanagan II, 41, of Roanoke — who also goes by the name Bryce Williams — shot and killed television reporter Alison Parker, 24, and Adam Ward, 27, a cameraman, videographer and photographer, as they were doing a live broadcast from Smith Mountain Lake for CBS affiliate WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Va. They both died on the scene.
A third shooting victim, Vicki Gardner, who was being interviewed by Parker, was treated at a Roanoke hospital. She is reportedly in stable condition.
Flanagan, who was pronounced dead around 1:30 p.m. at Inova Fairfax Hospital, was a former employee at WDBJ and had worked with the victims. He was fired in 2013, the station’s manager said.
At an afternoon news conference, authorities said they are still trying to figure out the exact motive for the shooting and how Flanagan knew the two would be broadcasting live from that location. A sheriff official said Flanagan was “disturbed in some way.”
“It would appear things were spiraling out of control,” said Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton at the news conference.
As for the victims, Overton said Parker and Ward were well-known in the community: “They grew up in this area. They are part of the community.”
Officials said they are not sure that Ward and Parker even knew Flanagan was there before the shooting began. They also said they believe Flanagan sent a lengthy, multi-page fax to a national news organization in New York about the incident and that investigators now have a copy of it. Authorities said the incident is still under investigation.
A man who claimed to be the gunman sent ABC News a 23-page letter on Wednesday morning saying he was motivated by the mass shooting at a Charleston, S.C., church in June, according to the network.
“Why did I do it?” stated the fax, which was received shortly before 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. “Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15…”
The document goes on to state: “What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them.”
Authorities have not confirmed that the document was sent by the shooter.
In the letter, excerpts of which were posted online by ABC News, the author references several gunmen who have carried out mass shootings across the United States. He writes that he was “influenced” by the gunman who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 and refers positively to the two teenagers who killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999, according to ABC.
Flanagan is believed to have posted on social media videos showing him shooting the two television reporters. Screenshots taken before the video was removed from the Internet showed a gun pointed at Parker as she interviewed Gardner, the executive director at the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The incident began about 6:45 a.m. The station they worked for said Ward and Parker had worked together before and were killed as they were doing a live shot at Bridgewater Plaza — a shopping and entertainment center near Smith Mountain Lake in Franklin County — to commemorate its 50th anniversary.
At the news conference, authorities said they received a 911 call for reports of shots fired at the plaza, but Flanagan had left the scene before sheriff deputies arrived. That led to an intense manhunt. Authorities said they were able to identify Flanagan as the gunman based on information from the television station.
Around 11 a.m., authorities said they located Flanagan’s greyish-colored, 2009 Mustang at the Roanake Regional Airport. Flanagan fled the airport in another car — a Chevrolet Sonic, which officials said he rented earlier in the month. He was tracked in that vehicle along Interstate 81 and then later located on Interstate 66 in Fauquier County.
A Virginia State Police trooper using a license plate reader spotted Flanagan’s car at 11:2o a.m., officials said.
Trooper Pamela Neff said once she spotted the car, which was traveling east, she called for backup and officers tried to make a traffic stop. After a less than two mile chase, Flanagan’s car ran off the side of the road and struck an embankment, said Sgt. F. L. Tyler, a Virginia State Police spokesman.
“Officers the approached the vehicle and found that the lone occupant had suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” said Tyler.
Tyler said Flanagan had life-threatening injuries and was flown to an area hospital, where he later died at 1:26 p.m.
Shock at the station
Video of the shooting shows Parker interviewing Gardner. Shots rang out and screams are heard. The shooting was captured on camera by Ward before he apparently dropped the camera. Another news anchor who was in the newsroom can be seen in shock and disbelief as she tried to figure out what happened on live television.
Jeff Marks, the station’s general manager, said the two were on the scene, reporting live when “someone with a gun barged into where they were.” He said it is believed that the gunman fired six or seven shots.
“We heard screaming and then we heard nothing,” he said on air. “The camera fell.”
Gardner — the exeutive director of the chamber — was taken to Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where she underwent surgery. She is expected to recover. Jessica Gauldin, vice chairman of the chamber of commerce and was in the hospital with Gardner’s family and friends, said Gardner had some “internal damage, but she’s stabilized right now and it looks good.” She was said to be in stable condition by mid-afternoon Wednesday.
At the Roanoke television station, colleagues turned their broadcasts throughout the day into news updates and tributes to Parker and Ward. It had turned into a day of tragedy for those at the station as they tried to report the news and hide their tears.
“Our hearts are broken,” said Marks. He said the two were “just out doing a story today.”
Flanagan said in his LinkedIn profile — under the name Bryce Williams — that he had worked at several TV stations, mostly in the South since the mid-1990s. He also had jobs in marketing and customer relations.
He said he joined WDBJ in March 2012. But Marks said that after months of disruptive behavior, Flanagan was fired in February 2013 and ushered out of the station by police. He did not give details as to what the behavior problems involved.
Flanagan “did not take that well,” he said from his station’s studio at the anchor desk. Marks described him as “an unhappy man.”
“We employed him as a reporter, and he had some talent in that respect, and some experience, although he had been out of the business for a while when we hired him here,” Marks said. “He quickly became — gathered a reputation as someone who was difficult to work with…
“He was sort of looking out for people to say things that he could take offense to,” Marks recalled. “And eventually, after many incidents of his anger coming to the fore, we dismissed him. And he did not take that well. We had to call the police to escort him from the building.
“Since then –well, he then filed an action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which he made all kinds of complaints. And there may have been one about Alison and/or Adam – I frankly don’t remember – but about members of the staff making racial comments. He was African American. And none of them could be corroborated by anyone. We think they were fabricated.” The EEOC claim was dismissed, according to Marks.
“So we had an unhappy former employee. But this happens. And usually they move on. Sometimes they’re just not suited for the work, and they move on and get a job somewhere else. But he remained in town, because every now and then someone would run into him at the grocery store or someplace like that.
“But,” Marks said, “I don’t recall getting a report of any run-ins or difficult situations … so there was not a lot of concern.”
Marks added, “You can never imagine someone would come back and act on those.”
At one of the places where Flanagan said he once worked — WNCT in Greenville — John Lewis, the general manager there said Flanagan had worked as a producer, reporter and anchor from 2002 to 2004 but said he could offer no more details. “There’s no one here anymore who knows him or worked with him,” Lewis said.
For those at the station and the family of those who were killed it was a tough time as they reflected on Ward and Parker.
Ward, a 2011 Virginia Tech graduate, was known to hear of news even on his way home and stop, turn around and go help report.
Parker is a 2012 graduate of James Madison University in Virginia, according to the station. She grew up near Martinsville. Before joining WDBJ7, she worked in Jacksonville, N.C.
Parker and Ward were both engaged to other co-workers at the station.
It was supposed to be a day of celebration because Ward’s fiancee Melissa Ott, who was working in the station’s control room when the shooting happened and saw the incident unfold, was having her last day there. She was taking a job at a station in Charlotte, N.C., and Ward was expected to follow her.
Chris Hurst, an anchor at WDBJ7, tweeted shortly after the shooting that he and Parker had “just moved in together,” and had been dating for about nine months. “We wanted to get married,” he wrote.
— Chris Hurst (@chrishurstwdbj) August 26, 2015
She was the most radiant woman I ever met. And for some reason she loved me back. She loved her family, her parents and her brother.
— Chris Hurst (@chrishurstwdbj) August 26, 2015
Fellow reporters at the station described Parker as kind, friendly and a “rock star reporter.”
Marks said Ward’s fiancee was in the control room when the shooting happened.
Ott said on her Facebook page that she and Ward got engaged on Dec. 20, 2014. Photos she posted show the smiling couple enjoying sporting events and tailgating. Ward is seen wearing gear from Virginia Tech.
According to his LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, Ward joined the WDBJ staff in 2011. He had graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in communication and media studies. He enrolled at Virginia Tech in 2007 — the same year of a shooting at the campus there that left 32 people dead and more than two dozen wounded. This past April, eight days before the eighth anniversary of the campus massacre, Ward changed his Facebook profile picture to an image of the school’s logo and a black ribbon.
“As close to Mayberry as you can get”
Smith Mountain Lake is a reservoir and lies about an hour southeast of Roanoke. It was created in the 1960s with the construction of the Smith Mountain Dam. The lake has become a popular vacation spot for fishing and boating.
“We don’t have violent crime in our area,” said state Sen. William Stanley (R-Franklin). “We have some property crimes, but even that is few and far between. It’s as close to Mayberry as you can get.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe noted that his family had just vacationed at Smith Mountain Lake and used the tragedy to repeat his support for tighter gun control.
Heartbroken over senseless murders today in Smith Mountain Lake. State Police on scene working w/ local law agencies to capture suspect.
— Terry McAuliffe (@GovernorVA) August 26, 2015
“What a tragedy, he said. “We just finished a family vacation … . Such a beautiful site.”
“There are too many guns in the hands of people who should not have guns,” he said. “That is why I’ve long advocated for background checks. … We’ve got, in America, we’ve got to come together. There’s too much gun violence in the United States of America.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said on Twitter that the incident is “just heart-wrenching.”
— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) August 26, 2015
The killings are the 7th and 8th journalists killed in the U.S. since 1992.
Staff writers Lynh Bui, Mark Berman, Paul Duggan, Peter Hermann, Arelis Hernandez, Dan Morse, Jenna Portnoy, Michael Ruane, Ian Shapiro, John Woodrox Cox, Victoria St. Martin and Laura Vozzella, along with freelancer Mason J. Adams contributed to this report.