The video suggests Vester Lee Flanagan was holding his cellphone in his upraised left hand as he approached where Alison Parker and Adam Ward of WDBJ-TV were interviewing a woman from the local chamber of commerce early Wednesday morning.
Flanagan zoomed the phone’s camera in and then back out, framing the image. Parker’s full attention was on the woman she was interviewing. Ward was peering into the eyepiece of his own, much larger camera.
Neither Parker nor Ward gave any sign of being aware of Flanagan’s presence as his right hand raised the gun into the view of his phone camera. The sleeve of his blue plaid shirt ended on a hand clutching what was almost certainly a Glock semi-automatic pistol complete with white night sights.
The hand holding the pistol was steady with deadly intent, as was the hand holding the phone. There was not a tremor during a long moment when Flanagan just pointed the gun at Parker.
The other video, the live footage being filmed simultaneously by Ward, would show that the cameraman had panned away to offer the live audience a bit of the gorgeous view from this deck overlooking Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia.
Flanagan must have been waiting for Ward to swing his camera back to Parker.
Only then, when Parker was being recorded by both the cellphone and the TV camera, just when an unhinged TV veteran would figure the footage promised to be the most sensational possible, did Flanagan start firing.
The pistol bucked with each shot, but Flanagan’s grip remained firm. The hand holding the cellphone remained eerily steady as Parker turned to flee and screamed.
The rest is something nobody can watch without adding to the audience that the killer so clearly desired.
On another day in 2013, Ward had been in the station’s newsroom immediately after Flanagan had been fired for a series of on-air screw-ups. These had included producing a bit of Chamber of Commerce fluff when he had been directed to cover a gun control event. Flanagan’s piece had been aired between two reports on the Newtown massacre.
“How do we go from talking about the terrible tragedy of Newtown to shilling for a local business and then back to the tragedy?” the news director had asked in a memo.
On being fired, Flanagan had refused to leave and told the bosses that they would have to call the police. Two cops did arrive to escort him out. Ward documented the incident with his camera.
“This was being recorded by Adam Ward,” a supervisor would say in an affidavit after Flanagan filed an unsuccessful suit alleging he had been unfairly terminated. Flanagan “turned his attention to him, said something about paparazzi, told Adam he needed to ‘lose your big gut,’ and flipped the camera off.”
In another affidavit, a supervisor reported that Flanagan complained that an intern named Alison Bailey had made “a couple of statements he thought were racist.”
“One was about ‘swinging by’ someplace,” the affidavit says. “The other was [being] out in the ‘field.’”
Along with imagining racist overtones to standard news business lingo, Flanagan may have confused Alison Bailey with Alison Parker, who had also been an intern at the station. Parker had been hired as a reporter shortly after Flanagan was fired, and now here she was, doing a Chamber of Commerce piece with Ward as the cameraman.
Flanagan proceeded to produce his own kind of gun control piece.
After he murdered Parker, Flanagan murdered Ward, who managed to film a glimpse of the gunman and the pistol as he collapsed. Flanagan seriously wounded the woman who was being interviewed, Vicki Gardner, and then fled in a gray 2009 Ford Mustang. The police were summoned for something on a whole other order than at his firing.
Flanagan is believed to be the same man who had been calling ABC News for several weeks, wanting to pitch a story and requesting a fax number. He had identified himself as Bryce Williams, the name Flanagan had used during a rocky career as a TV news reporter, which had included the brief stint at WDBJ that ended with his dismissal.
By the time stamp, Flanagan either faxed or arranged for somebody else to fax a 23-page “Suicide Note for Friends and Family” at 8:26 a.m. on Wednesday, nearly two hours after the shooting. Flanagan wrote that the double murder on live TV had been triggered by the killing of nine innocent members of a Bible study group at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15,” the note says. “The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15…What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them.”
Nothing he could have done would have been more obscene than to inscribe the bullets that killed Parker and Ward with the initials of those whose relatives had risen one after another in a Charleston courthouse to say they forgave gunman Dylann Roof.
The note also makes mention of Seung-Hui Cho, who used a Glock to murder 32 people at Virginia Tech in the spring of 2007. Ward happened to have enrolled as a freshman there that fall.
“Also, I was influenced by Seung-Hui Cho. That’s my boy right there,” the note says.
The note compares the Virginia Tech killer to the Columbine killers.
“He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann [sic] Klebold got…just sayin.’"
Flanagan complains in the note of encountering racism, sexual harassment, and bullying as a gay black man.
“The church shooting was the tipping point…but my anger has been building steadily,” he wrote. “I’ve been a human powder keg for a while…just waiting to go BOOM!!!!”
Shortly after 10 a.m., Flanagan, more than three hours after the shooting, telephoned ABC.
“[He] introduced himself as Bryce, but also said his legal name was Vester Lee Flanagan, and that he shot two people this morning,” ABC later reported. “While on the phone, he said authorities are ‘after me’ and ‘all over the place.’ He hung up. ABC News contacted the authorities immediately and provided them with the fax.”
Even as Flanagan was speaking to ABC, U.S. Marshals working with Virginia state troopers “pinged” his cellphone, pinpointing his location at the edge of Roanoke.
“He used [the] phone,” a trooper reported over the radio.
As Flanagan seems to have anticipated, the authorities had issued an all points bulletin for his Mustang. His pursuers spotted it parked at the airport, but he was nowhere to be seen.
“Disregard the Mustang,” a police dispatcher then announced. “Vehicle has been located.”
For a confused few minutes, the police radio offered descriptions of two possible getaway vehicles.
“Cream colored Charger or tan Impala,” a dispatcher said.
That was at 11:03 a.m., five minutes before Flanagan began live-tweeting while on the run. He seems to have confused Parker with that other intern named Alison who had made comments no reasonable person could have construed as offensive.
“Alison made racist comments,” then, a minute later, “EEOC report filed,” then immediately, “They hired her after that?”
A minute later, Flanagan tweeted that Ward had once reported him to the station’s human resources department. “Adam went to HR on me after working with me one time!”
Nineteen seconds later, Flanagan tweeted that the video of the double murder that he had made with such diabolical calm had been posted for all the world to see. He was going to show everybody who could make TV.
“I filmed the shooting see Facebook.”
During those same minutes, the police had determined that Flanagan was driving a silver Chevrolet Sonic that he had rented at the airport sometime before the shooting. The plate number, VJM5384, was entered into a database.
“Are they sure this guy’s by himself?” one trooper asked over the radio.
“He’s got a friend who’s been relaying information,” a dispatcher replied. “He may be with him.”
The information the dispatcher mentioned was apparently referring to the note. Flanagan may well have sent it himself via his phone while on the run, just as he tweeted and posted the video to Facebook. He was almost certainly alone in the car. He unquestionably was fleeing solo when a trooper’s license plate reader alerted her that the Sonic with the plate number VJM5384 was speeding past.
“Someone’s behind the vehicle,” another trooper reported over the radio. “They haven’t made a stop. The vehicle’s now eastbound on I-66.”
The trooper trailed him until she had backup. She then flipped on her emergency lights and closed in. The Sonic veered off the highway onto the median and stopped.
When the troopers advanced on the car, they discovered that Flanagan had shot himself in the head.
“Disregard lookout for suspect and vehicle,” the dispatcher announced on the radio at 11:37 a.m.
Flanagan still had a pulse, and a medevac helicopter was summoned. He was flown to a nearby hospital, where he died soon after.
Crime scene tape had gone up at the scenic deck where it had all begun seven hours before. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recalled being there with his family on vacation this summer.
The deck was now spattered with bloody proof of how right McAuliffe has been to be such a vocal advocate for stricter gun control.
“There are too many guns in the hands of people who should not have them,” he said.