On-air shooter threatened to make 'headlines,' showed anger
ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — On the day he was fired from a Virginia TV station, Vester Flanagan pressed a wooden cross into his boss' hand as two police officers walked him to the door. "You'll need this," he said.
More than two years later, Flanagan — fulfilling a threat to put his conflict with co-workers into "the headlines" — gunned down two station employees during a live morning broadcast, one of them a cameraman who had filmed his firing.
But as station employees struggled Thursday to explain the events that framed Flanagan's anger, others who had run across the gunman in the time since he lost his job at WDBJ-TV described a man whose hair-triggered temper was increasingly set off by slights that were more often imagined than real.
A former co-worker at a call center where he worked until late 2014 recalled how her off-hand comment that the often boisterous Flanagan was acting quiet led him to try to grab her by the shoulder, and tell her never to talk to him again.
At a bar in Roanoke, the manager recalled Flanagan was so incensed when no one thanked him as he left that he sent a nearly 20-page letter, lambasting employees' behavior.
As Flanagan encountered repeated tensions with others around him, he described himself as the aggrieved and unappreciated victim.
"How heartless can you be? My entire life was disrupted after moving clear across the country for a job only to have my dream turn into a nightmare," Flanagan wrote in a letter to a judge filed as part of his 2013 lawsuit against the television station. "Your Honor, I am not the monster here."
The lawsuit was dismissed in July 2014. But in recent weeks, Flanagan laid careful plans for retribution. He contacted ABC News about what he claimed was a story tip and filled his Facebook page with photos and video montages seemingly designed to introduce himself to a larger audience.
On Wednesday, Flanagan killed 24-year-old Alison Parker, a reporter for WDBJ, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, while the two conducted a live interview for the station's morning broadcast, then went online to claim that they had wronged him in the past.
After the killing, Flanagan texted a friend suggesting he had "done something stupid," investigators wrote in a search warrant. He turned the gun on himself when police caught up to him a few hours later. Inside his rental car, investigators found extra license plates, a wig, shawl, sunglasses and a hat as well as some stamped letters and a "to do" list.
Colleagues of the journalists shot to death returned to their morning show Thursday, in a broadcast that opened with images of Parker and Ward.
"We come to you with heavy hearts. Two of our own were shot during a live shot yesterday morning," said Kim McBroom, the anchor whose open-mouthed shock was seen around the world Wednesday after Ward's camera recorded the attack.
Later, during an afternoon news conference, the station's general manager, Jeffrey Marks, recalled a series of problems with Flanagan while he worked at WDBJ from March 2012 to February 2013. Flanagan accused a news photographer of trespassing on private property. He confronted an anchor over a story and attempted to reach the company's CEO to complain. He filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as the lawsuit.
Flanagan's joking and smiling one minute could turn to anger in the next, a former colleague, Justin McLeod, said in an interview.
Once, seemingly out of nowhere, Flanagan told a photographer that he knew the man didn't like him because he was gay. The photographer responded by telling Flanagan that he had not even known, McLeod said.
But there was no inkling then or since of what was to come, Marks said. Former co-workers, surprised that he stayed in town after losing his job, passed him from time to time. They called them "Bryce sightings," referring to Flanagan's on-air name, McLeod said. But none had any conversation with him, let alone confrontations.
"We are still at a loss to figure out what happened to him in those 2 ½ years," Marks said.
Others who crossed paths with Flanagan during that time, though, recalled a man who took offense easily.
When Flanagan landed a job at a UnitedHealthcare call center in Roanoke after he was fired, he was usually boisterous and intense, notable for his loud laughter. So Michelle Kibodeaux, who worked with Flanagan, took note one day when he seemed quiet.
"I told him, 'You're being quiet today. The shoe's on the other foot.' He said, 'You don't know me well enough to judge me.'"
Kibodeaux said when she turned to walk away, Flanagan tried to grab her by the shoulder, but she ducked under his hand.
"He said, 'Don't you walk away from me. Don't you turn your back on me,'" she recalled.
Flanagan told her never to speak to him again and she steered clear.
Three or four months ago, Flanagan's temper was set off again by a visit to Jack Brown's Beer & Burger Joint in downtown Roanoke. Afterward, general manager Heather Fay told The Associated Press, she received a 15- to 20-page letter from Flanagan criticizing the staff for telling customers to "have a nice day" instead of "thank you."
"You could tell he was really angry," Fay said. "It was bizarre, for sure."
Fay, who said she threw the letter out shortly after receiving it, wrote down Flanagan's name and a general description of his letter in her manager's notebook. While she had never received anything like it before, she said there was no indication the letter's author was contemplating a crime.
"I thought the guy had a lot of time on his hands," Fay said.
Don Shafer, who hired Flanagan at a Florida television station in 1999, recalled that he was a good reporter and "clever, funny guy" but he had conflicts with his co-workers.
"Especially the floor crew, some of the reporters, some of the photographers in the field, to the point where he was threatening people," said Shafer, now the news director with XETV in San Diego. "Had some physical confrontations with a couple of people, and at one point became such a distraction that we finally had to terminate him."
Flanagan's conflicts with others in recent years seemed to contradict the memory of some who recalled him as an outgoing student in Oakland, California, who was chosen junior prince at Skyline High School's homecoming or as a classmate at San Francisco State University who relished being in the spotlight during group presentations.
"He was such a nice guy, just a soft spoken, well dressed, good looking guy. He never had any problems, no fights, nothing like that," said a high school classmate, Chris Dobbins, now an Oakland attorney.
A cousin, 69-year-old Guynell Smith, who was stopping by Flanagan's father's home in Vallejo, California, told reporters that the family was unaware of any troubles. "He was just a normal kid," she said. "We knew Vester a different way."
But others who met Flanagan as he traced a career between TV stations and other employers in California, Florida, North Carolina and elsewhere recalled more troubling memories.
At WTWC-TV in Tallahassee, Florida, where Flanagan worked in 1999 and 2000, he berated two female employees who pointed out mistakes in his reporting, bringing them to tears, said a former colleague, Dave Leval.
One woman's husband, a law enforcement officer, "threatened to come in and beat the stuffing out of the guy if he talked to her that way again," said Leval, now a sports reporter and anchor at KTVA in Anchorage, Alaska.
Despite Flanagan's turbulent stint in Tallahassee, Leval said he was shocked when he heard the name mentioned as the Virginia shooter.
"He could have done this to us," Leval said.
Associated Press reporters Matthew Barakat, Jonathan Drew, Alan Suderman and John Raby in Roanoke, Larry O'Dell in Richmond, Virginia, Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Mississippi, Terry Chea in Vallejo, California, Garance Burke in Oakland, California, Julie Watson in San Diego and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this story.