The cold-blooded Roanoke killer kept getting fired, kept
threatening co-workers, and kept claiming he was the real victim.
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“Avoid being merely a human tape recorder” and report the real
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
“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.”