Vester Lee Flanagan claimed in a suicide note Wednesday that June’s massacre of black parishioners at a South Carolina church was “the tipping point” that sent him on the path to murdering two journalists on live television Wednesday.
But in court papers and interviews with The Daily Beast, former colleagues describe Flanagan as a problematic employee, who was repeatedly reprimanded for his harsh treatment of coworkers, and complained that racism was behind harsh evaluations of his work.
“He just had a history of playing the race card,” former WTWC anchor Dave Leval told The Daily Beast. “I know he did that in Tallahassee a couple of times…”
The day Flanagan was fired from a Virginia TV station in 2013, his bosses called 911 because of his volatile behavior—an incident captured on camera by Adam Ward, a man who would later become one of his victims.
At a February 2013 meeting, managers at WDBJ7 in Roanoke told Flanagan he wasn’t a good fit and would be terminated. Flanagan became “agitated” before issuing a threat, one boss recalled in court papers.
“I’m not leaving,” fumed Flanagan, who went by “Bryce Williams” on air. “You’re going to have to call the fucking police. Call the police, I’m not leaving. I’m going to make a stink and it’s going to be in the headlines.”
One former manager, Dan Dennison, said Flanagan terrified employees so much they took shelter in a locked office.
“He repeated… his feeling that firing him would lead to negative consequences for me personally and for the station,” Dennison said, according to a statement in a racial discrimination lawsuit Flanagan filed in 2014, which was dismissed.
The disgruntled newsman handed Dennison a small wooden cross and warned him, “You’ll need this.”
But no one could guess that two years after he was fired, Flanagan would shoot two other journalists at his former TV station.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Flanagan approached Ward and reporter Alison Parker from behind at a local park while they were interviewing Vicki Gardner of the local chamber of commerce. Dressed in black, Flanagan drew a camera phone and a gun, and started shooting.
Ward was hit first, but managed to raise his camera for a final look at Flanagan before dying. Parker tried to run but was shot dead. Gardner was shot but survived and is now in stable condition.
Flanagan fled in a rental car and sparked an hours-long manhunt, during which he tweeted perceived slights from the victims.
Then Flanagan made the final, and surely most-watched broadcast of his career, sending out snuff films online.
Minutes later, authorities caught up with him. Flanagan apparently shot himself and crashed his car. He was transported to a hospital, where he later died.
WDBJ’s station manager Jeff Marks painted a picture of Flanagan’s erratic behavior at a news conference Wednesday.
“Vester was an unhappy man,” Marks said, adding, “when he was hired here, he quickly 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.”
Flanagan also filed an employment discrimination suit against a Tallahassee, Florida, station where he worked from 1999 to 2000. (That case was settled out of court.)
According to one news report, Flanagan said he and another black employee were called “monkeys” and claimed a supervisor once said, “Blacks are lazy and do not take advantage of free money” for scholarships and other opportunities.
Don Shafer, Flanagan’s former boss at WTWC in Tallahassee, called Flanagan a “pretty good reporter” but said “things started getting a little strange with him.”
“We ended up having to terminate his contract and let him go for bizarre behavior and fighting with other employees,” Shafer said on San Diego 6, where he now serves as news director.
“He threatened to punch people out, and he was kind of running fairly roughshod over other people in the newsroom,” Shafer added.
Former colleagues told The Daily Beast that Flanagan blew up at two female coworkers in Florida—and that one woman’s husband considered coming to work to defend her.
“In one case, the husband of one of the women came this close to coming into the station and pounding the hell out of him,” Leval said.
“When he left WTWC in Tallahassee, I don’t think anybody shed a tear,” Leval added.
Leval said photographers repeatedly tried to get out of assignments with Flanagan, who was difficult and acted like a “diva.”
Former news producer Greg Sextro said Flanagan was “the biggest dork I’d ever met in my entire life, but he was a really nice guy. A horrible reporter, but really nice.”
Sextro, who was called to a deposition in the Florida discrimination suit, said the budding journalist was treated well at the station and that colleagues tried to help him with his writing.
“The fact that he kept his job was because he was an African-American gay man. That’s pretty hard to say no to,” Sextro told The Daily Beast.
“He was just a goofy guy,” Sexro added. “I cannot see him doing this ever. He had to have been pushed to the limit to do something like that.”
Meanwhile ABC News reported Wednesday it received a suicide note via fax from “Bryce Williams” about two hours after the shooting. Flanagan claimed he purchased his gun two days after nine black parishioners were killed in Charleston in June—and that he was fighting back in the race war Dylann Roof supposedly wanted to start.
“The church shooting was the tipping point… but my anger has been building steadily,” Flanagan wrote. “I’ve been a human powder keg for a while… just waiting to go BOOM!!!!”
Flanagan also claimed he was attacked for being a gay black man, and that he suffered bullying, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination at work, ABC News reported.
Court papers in Flanagan’s 2013 discrimination case also reveal an apparent preoccupation with perceived racism against him.
“I am hereby requesting a trial which will be heard by a jury of my peers,” he wrote in a letter to the judge. “I would like my jury to be comprised of African-American women.”
Flanagan also mentioned a frequently appearing watermelon as evidence of racial harassment at the Roanoke TV station and claimed he had photos of it.
“This was not an innocent incident,” Flanagan claimed. “It appeared after a meeting during which ‘watermelon’ comments were discussed.”
He also claimed head photographer Lynn Eller was the mastermind of a “carefully orchestrated effort by the photography staff to oust me,” court documents show.
“Why did one of the photographers go to HR on me after working with me ONLY ONCE,” Flanagan wrote, in an apparent reference to victim Adam Ward. “There was nothing to report! That, Your honor, is just plain wrong.”
In further documents, he alleges that two station employees behaved in an inappropriate and threatening manner to him—with one of them “holding a sharp object (a pen) which could have been used as a weapon.”
Personnel records from May 2012 and filed in the case show Flanagan made colleagues feel “threatened or uncomfortable.”
He allegedly told one cameraman shooting b-roll from his shoulder, “I’m not trying to be an asshole, but the shaky video isn’t going to work.” Flanagan then allegedly turned to an interview subject and said, “I’m sorry, sir, the footage he just shot is completely unusable.”
A July 2012 document warned that Flanagan “must make improvements immediately” or “face termination of employment.”
In a performance review one month later, Flanagan scored a 1 out of 5 in the category of “works well together with photographer, producer and assignment editor;” he scored 3s on evaluations about delivering news “in an understandable manner” and “covering beat and enterprising stories.”
Bosses reprimanded Flanagan that November for wearing an Obama sticker when he voted, a violation of the nonpartisan conditions of his contract.
“While this is the first incident of this nature, and we trust the last, you need to quickly and diligently move from the category of an employee who commits misstep after misstep to the kind of problem-free employee we hope you can become,” Dennison wrote in a letter to Flanagan.
One of the final memos before his termination included a harsh suggestion:
“Avoid being merely a human tape recorder” and report the real news.
Among the missteps that led to this admonition was his decision to cover a local creamery over the governor’s comments on gun control after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Despite some coworkers’ warnings about Flanagan, friends struggled to understand what could make him crack.
Larrell Dean, a friend from college, told The Daily Beast the alleged killer “was a good soul and a bright spirit” when he knew him.
“This is very emotional for me,” said Dean, who choked up on the phone. “He was a nice person, always a good guy.”
“I had a better chance of winning the lottery before I thought he’d do something crazy like this,” Dean added. “All I can do is pray for the victims and pray for his family.”