What made one-time journalist Vester Lee Flanagan gun down his former colleagues live on-air?



It was 6.45am on 26 August 2015. Breakfast TV reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were filming a live report on location for their station, WDBJ.

The pair often worked as a team. As Adam filmed Alison interviewing businesswoman Vicki Gardner at a shopping centre in Moneta, Virginia, gunshots suddenly rang out.

Still on camera, Alison screamed, her smile replaced by a look of terror.

There was a gunman behind Adam – shooting right at them. And, with the camera still rolling, it was happening live on-air, broadcast to thousands of homes.

There were screams. More gunshots. Alison was filmed fleeing the flying bullets. Her microphone recorded her desperate cries.

As Adam’s camera fell to the ground, it captured a shadowy figure standing over him, aiming a gun at him.

The journalists’ colleagues, watching on their monitors at WDBJ headquarters included Alison’s boyfriend, reporter Chris Hurst, 28, and Adam’s fiancée, producer Melissa Ott.

And they recognised the gunman as former reporter Vester Lee Flanagan II, 41. Known professionally as Bryce Williams, he’d been fired from the station.

Police raced immediately to Bridgewater Plaza, where they found two bodies.

WDBJ’s general manager later came on the air to confirm the tragic news, saying, ‘It’s my very, very sad duty to report…that Alison and Adam died this morning.’

Businesswoman Vicki had survived being shot in the back.

Meanwhile, Vester Lee Flanagan had fled the scene. It was five hours before police officers cornered him in Fauquier County, Virginia.

Surrounded, he turned his gun on himself and later died in hospital.

While on the run, Vester Lee Flanagan had posted updates to Twitter and Facebook, ranting about his victims.

Horrifyingly, he’d also used his camera phone to film himself committing the murders and posted the video to social media.

So, what had caused this formerly dedicated journalist – a man who’d always dreamt of becoming a TV news anchor – to become a brutal murderer?

Vester Lee Flanagan

Rex Features

Born in Oakland, California in 1973, Vester Lee Flanagan had been popular at school. Former classmates recalled him as good looking – even doing some modelling.

After graduating from uni with a degree in Radio and Television, he’d set his sights on TV news. He wanted to be famous, with his name in lights.

For a few years, he did well as a reporter, even getting his dream job as news anchor.

But the dream soured when he claimed colleagues at his Florida station were making offensive comments because he was gay.

The station found no evidence to support this. Instead, his co-workers claimed Flanagan himself was the problem. They said he was rude and aggressive, had anger issues.

In 2000, Vester Lee Flanagan was fired for ‘odd behaviour’. He attempted to sue the station for racial discrimination. The lawsuit was settled out of court.

In April 2012, he was hired by WDBJ as a multimedia journalist. But things soon went downhill.

Along with being criticised for missing deadlines and getting facts wrong, Flanagan got into arguments with other reporters.

Within three months of being hired, Flanagan’s news director ordered him to see a doctor for mental-health issues, although records don’t show whether Flanagan ever did seek help.

By February 2013, he’d come to the end of the line at WDBJ and was fired. He didn’t take it well. Colleagues said he ‘lashed out’ at newsroom staff and Security marched him from the building.

With his career in tatters, Flanagan got a job in a call centre, but was soon causing trouble there, too. And his neighbours described him as arrogant and rude, said he threw cat mess at their homes if they disagreed with him.

When police raided his dank flat after the murders, they found cat urine on the kitchen floor and cat faeces smeared on the balcony.

Obsessed with his glory days, Flanagan had covered his fridge with photos of himself on TV.

The night before the killings, he’d sent a rambling, 23-page fax to a national news station, entitled, Suicide Note For Friends And Family.

In it, he talked of his anger over perceived racial discrimination and sexual harassment over the years, believing he was targeted because he was a homosexual black man.

He said that he’d killed his two cats in a forest, in a fit of rage. He then explained that he’d bought a handgun following the Charleston Church killings in June 2015, when a gunman shot churchgoers, adding, My hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them.

Flanagan said the church shooting was a tipping point… but my anger has been building steadily…I’ve been a human powder keg for a while…just waiting to go BOOM!!!!

He talked of his admiration for mass murderers such as Columbine High School killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho.

In his Twitter and Facebook rants while on the run, he spoke of discrimination by WDBJ, specifically accusing his two victims, saying that Adam had filed a complaint against him to HR and Alison had once made a coded racist remark. Alison’s loved ones disputed this.

It seemed Flanagan had lost all grip on reality. While he’d seen his own ambitions crumble, Alison and Adam’s careers were going from strength to strength.

At 11.14am on the day of the shooting, Flanagan uploaded a 56-second video, filmed on his phone from his perspective.

He’d found out where Alison and Adam were working that day. The video showed him walking up to the scene of the live interview and brandishing the handgun for several seconds without his victims noticing.

He muttered ‘b*tch’, before opening fire on Alison.

Chillingly, he’d waited until Adam’s camera was directed at her before shooting, to ensure the killing was shown live on air.

The shocking story – and Flanagan’s hateful video – were seen by millions worldwide.

In death, this murderer had gained the ‘fame’ that he’d always craved – but at a terrible cost to his innocent victims.