Image: WDBJ reporter Alison Parker (L) is pictured interviewing Vicki Gardner in Moneta, Virginia August 26, 2015 moments before she was shot, in this combination of still images from video posted to the Facebook account of Bryce Williams. REUTERS/via Facebook/Handout via Reuters
By Gary Robertson
MONETA, Va. (Reuters) – Two television journalists were shot to death during a live broadcast in Virginia on Wednesday, slain by a former employee of the TV station and who called himself a “powder keg” of anger over what he saw as racial discrimination at work and elsewhere in the United States.
The suspect, 41-year-old Vester Flanagan, shot himself as police pursued him on a Virginia highway hours after the shooting. Flanagan, who was African-American, died later at a hospital, police said.
The journalists who were killed were reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27. Both journalists were white, as is a woman who they were interviewing. The woman was wounded and was in stable condition, a hospital spokesman said.
Social media postings by a person who appeared to be Flanagan indicated the suspect had grievances against the station, CBS affiliate WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia, which let him go two years ago. The person also posted video that appeared to show the attack filmed from the gunman’s vantage point.
Flanagan sent ABC News a 23-page fax about two hours after the shooting, saying his attack was triggered by the June 17 mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the network said. Nine people were killed, and a white man has been charged in that rampage.
The network cited Flanagan as saying he had suffered racial discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying at work. He had been attacked by black men and white women, and for being a gay black man, he said.
“The church shooting was the tipping point … but my anger has been building steadily,” ABC News cited the fax as saying. “I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM!”
The on-air shooting occurred at about 6:45 a.m. EDT (1045 GMT) at Bridgewater Plaza, a Smith Mountain Lake recreation site about 200 miles (320 km) southwest of Washington.
The broadcast was abruptly interrupted by the sound of gunshots as Parker and the woman being interviewed, Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, screamed and ducked for cover.
Hours after the shooting, someone claiming to have filmed it posted video online. The videos were posted to a Twitter account and on Facebook by a man identifying himself as Bryce Williams, which was Flanagan’s on-air name.
The videos were removed shortly afterward. In one video, a handgun was clearly visible as the person filming approached the female reporter.
The person purporting to be Williams also posted, “I filmed the shooting see Facebook” as well as saying one of the victims had “made racist comments.”
In the fax to ABC News, Flanagan praised shooters who had carried out mass killings at Virginia Tech University in 2007 and at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.
ABC News said Flanagan called the network shortly after 10 a.m. Flanagan said he had shot two people and that police were after him, and then hung up. ABC News then contacted authorities and turned over the fax, which had arrived about 90 minutes earlier, the network said.
SHOT HIMSELF AS POLICE CLOSED IN
Flanagan shot himself as Virginia State Police were closing in on a rental car on Interstate 66 in Fauquier County, WDBJ7 said. State police said the suspect refused to stop when spotted by troopers and sped away.
Minutes later, the suspect’s vehicle ran off the road and crashed, police said in a statement, adding that troopers approached the vehicle to find the driver with a gunshot wound. He was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital near Washington, where he died.
“It’s obvious that this gentleman was disturbed in some way at the way things had transpired at some part of his life,” Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton told a news conference.
“It appears things were spiraling out of control, but we’re still looking into that,” he said. “We still have a lengthy investigation to conduct and that’s our focus as we move forward.”
Flanagan had sued another station where he worked in Florida for alleged racial discrimination.
Flanagan said he was called a “monkey” by a producer in the lawsuit filed in federal court against Tallahassee station WTWC in 2000. He also said a supervisor at the station called black people lazy. The Florida case was settled and dismissed the next year, court records show.
WDBJ7 President and General Manager Jeff Marks said he knew of no particular connection between Flanagan and the two slain journalists.
Speaking to CNN about Flanagan, he added, “Do you imagine that everyone who leaves your company under difficult circumstances is going to take aim?”
“Why were they (Parker and Ward) the targets, and not I or somebody else in management?” he said.
The station’s early morning broadcast showed Parker interviewing Gardner about the lake and tourism development in the area. Gunshots erupted, and as Ward fell his camera hit the ground but kept running. An image caught on camera showed what appeared to be a man in dark clothing facing the camera with a weapon in his right hand.
The station described the two dead journalists as an ambitious reporter-and-cameraman team who often produced light and breezy feature stories for the morning program.
“I cannot tell you how much they were loved,” Marks said.
They were both engaged to be married to other people at the station.
“My heart goes out to the families affected,” President Barack Obama said in a television interview in New Orleans, adding that such gun violence occurs “all too often in this country.”
He said the United States needs to do “a better job of making sure that people who have problems, people who shouldn’t have guns, don’t have them.”
Roanoke-area residents brought flowers and food to the WDBJ7 studio late on Wednesday, and parishioners at the Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Moneta, near the scene of the shooting, held a prayer vigil for Gardner.
On-air WDBJ7 personalities, who earlier acknowledged holding back tears as they reported on the deaths of their colleagues, said local ministers had reached out offering support.
According to his social media sites, Flanagan attended San Francisco State University. A university spokesman said he graduated in 1995 with a degree in radio and television.
(Reporting by Emily Flitter, Laila Kearney and Barbara Goldberg in New York and Ian Simpson in Washington; Writing by Frances Kerry and Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker)
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