It was an early-morning site visit for a feature story alongside spacious, peaceful Smith Mountain Lake, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. By 6:45 on the morning of August 26, a reporter-camera man crew for Roanoke VA’s CBS affiliate, WDBJ, were well into a waterside interview with Vicki Gardner, executive director of the lake area’s Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Two minutes later, after at least eight shots were fired by a lone gunman, reporter Alison Parker, 24, and photographer Adam Ward, 27, were dead, and Ms. Gardner was in need of surgery.
Another day, another senseless shooting.
The gunman, Vester Lee Flanagan, a former reporter at WDBJ where he used the name Bryce Williams, videotaped his attack and posted it on Facebook — from which it was removed shortly thereafter. Mr. Ward’s recording of the event was broadcast live on his station and quickly picked up and rebroadcast across the country.
The station’s ongoing live coverage, for the next hour or more, showed studio presenters discussing how “well loved” Ward and Parker were, and how full-of-life they were upon reporting to work in the wee hours of the morning. Parker was particularly well-loved by Christ Hurst, the WDBJ anchor who she’d recently begun sharing a home with. “We wanted to get married,” he Tweeted at 9:32 am. “I’m numb.”
He said the “very much in love” couple had been a couple “almost nine months, and it was the best nine months of our lives,” They only recently celebrated her 24th birthday.
Clearly less happy with the course of his life, Flanagan/Williams, an African-American, was dismissed by the statement in 2013 after he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saying he’d been subjected to racial remarks at the station. WDBJ president and general Manager Jeffrey Marks said the complaint had been dismissed when no corroboration was found to support it. “We think [the charges] were fabricated,” Mr. Marks said in a statement.
His dismissal, after he’d “quickly gathered a reputation as someone who was difficult to work with,” as Mr. Marks put it, certainly wasn’t dismissed from the former employee’s mind as evidenced, even before the shooting, by his preparation of a 23-page fax received from him by ABC News, which turned the document over to law authorities. A New York Times report said Wednesday that a Virginia government official who saw the fax “described it as the ‘rantings of an obviously depressed individual’ who mentions suicide, but does not talk about killing others.”
It is likely that law enforcement’s follow-up to that fax contributed to the quick identification of the shooter, who apparently drove his own car to the shooting scene then switched at the Roanoke airport to a car he’d rented a month earlier. State police tracked that vehicle onto and northbound on I-81 and a high-speed chase carried on across a lengthy stretch of interstate roadways from central into northern Virginia.
Then, on I-66 heading in the direction of Washington DC, Flanagan/Williams shot himself in the head while driving, resulting in the crashing of the rental car. He was airlifted to a Fairfax VA hospital, where he died some seven hours and 170-plus miles from the site of the initial incident.
Flanagan/Williams, who had worked at several television stations across the south, in 2000 “filed a lawsuit in 2000 against WTWC, the Tallahassee station where he worked, making allegations similar to those he made about WDBJ; The case was quickly settled on undisclosed terms,” The NY Times report said.
Don Shafer, who worked with Flanagan/Williams at the WTWC, the Tallahassee station, said his former colleague’s contract “had been terminated, in part, because of bizarre behavior and threats to other employees,” according to The Times.