ROANOKE, Va. (AP) – Long before he filmed himself gunning down a TV reporter and cameraman during a live news broadcast Wednesday, the man identified as the killer followed a twisted and volatile career path that saw him fired from at least two stations for conflicts with co-workers, leaving colleagues with memories of an “off-kilter” loner easily angered by office humor.
When the suspect, identified by authorities as Vester Lee Flanagan II, was fired from Roanoke, Virginia, station WDBJ in 2013, he had to be escorted out of the building by local police “because he was not going to leave willingly or under his own free will,” the station’s former news director, Dan Dennison, said in an interview with a Hawaii station, Hawaii News Now (KHNL/KGMB).
Flanagan, 41, had “a long series of complaints against co-workers nearly from the beginning of employment at the TV station,” said Dennison, now an official with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. “All of these allegations were deemed to be unfounded. And they were largely … along racial lines, and we did a thorough investigation and could find no evidence that anyone had racially discriminated against this man.” The victims of Wednesday’s shooting were white; Flanagan was black.
Hours after he allegedly shot his former co-workers Wednesday, Flanagan crashed a vehicle and troopers found him suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He died at a hospital later Wednesday, authorities said.
The conflict described by Dennison in many ways echoed another, in 2000, when Flanagan was fired from a Tallahassee, Florida, television station in 2000 after threatening fellow employees, a former supervisor said.
Flanagan “was a good on-air performer, a pretty good reporter and then things started getting a little strange with him,” Don Shafer, the former news director of Florida’s WTWC-TV said Wednesday in an interview broadcast on Shafer’s current employer, San Diego 6 The CW.
Shafer said managers at the Florida station fired Flanagan because of his “bizarre behavior.”
“He threatened to punch people out and he was kind of running fairly roughshod over other people in the newsroom,” said Shafer, who did not immediately return a call from AP for comment.
Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, who worked with Flanagan at the Florida station, recalled him as “off-kilter” and someone who “never really made himself part of the team.”
Recalling one of a number of incidents, Wilmoth said that co-workers meant to tease Flanagan for a story he did on a spelling bee that made it sound as if the winner would get a case of Girl Scouts, rather than cookies sold by the group.
“The next day, somebody had a Girl Scout emblem on their desk and we made some copies of it and taped them to his computer,” she said. “If he had only laughed we would have all been friends forever. But he didn’t laugh … he got mad. And that was when I realized he wasn’t part of the collegiality that exists in a newsroom and he removed himself from it.”
In 2000, Flanagan sued the Florida station over allegations of race discrimination, claiming that a producer called him a “monkey” in 1999 and that other black employees had been called the same name by other workers. Flanagan also claimed that an unnamed white supervisor at the station said black people were lazy because they did not take advantage of scholarships to attend college. The parties later reached a settlement.
Flanagan grew up in Oakland, California, and graduated from San Francisco State University.
Virgil Barker, who grew up on the same tree-lined street in the Oakland hills, recalled his childhood friend Wednesday with fondness.
“I know you want to hear that he was a monster, but he was the complete opposite,” Barker said. “He was very, very loving.”
Barker said he had lost touch with Flanagan over the years but remained close to Flanagan’s sister, who still lives in the family’s home across the street.
No one answered the door Wednesday morning at the white stucco house, with fruit trees in the front yard overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Before and after his work in Florida, Flanagan, who also appeared on-air using the name Bryce Williams, worked at a series of stations around the country, sometimes for just a few months at a time.
They included a stint in 1996 at KPIX, a San Francisco station, where a spokeswoman confirmed he worked as a freelance production assistant. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as a general assignment reporter at WTOC-TV in Savannah, Georgia. From 2002 to 2004, he worked as a reporter and anchor at WNCT-TV in Greenville, North Carolina, general manager and vice president John Lewis said.
A former co-worker at the California station, Barbara Rodgers, recalled him only vaguely as “a young, eager kid out of journalism school,” who “just wanted to be on TV and to do a good job.”
Working in Georgia years ago, Flanagan was “tall, good looking and seemed to be really nice, personable and funny,” said a former fellow reporter, Angela Williams-Gebhardt, who now lives in Ohio.
But in a rambling 23-page letter sent by fax Wednesday to ABC News soon after the shooting, Flanagan listed grievances dating back to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech and the more recent massacre of worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while,” Flanagan wrote in the note, “just waiting to go BOOM!!!!”
Associated Press reporters Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida, Garance Burke in Oakland, California, Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Mississippi, and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this story.
The family of Flanagan released the following statement Wednesday evening:
It is with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we express our deepest condolenses to the families of Alison Parker and Adam Ward. We are also praying for the recovery of Vicki Gardner. Our thoughts and prayers at this time are with the victims’ families and the WBDJ7 NEWS family. Words cannot express the hurt that we feel for the victtims. Our family is asking that the media respect our privacy.”