Late Wednesday morning, Virginia State Police Trooper Pamela Neff was doing what countless other law-enforcement officers were doing on Virginia’s highways: watching for the man who gunned down two TV journalists at Smith Mountain Lake and then fled for parts unknown.
Neff, a native of the Winchester area, had been sitting at the interchange of Interstate 81 and Interstate 66 for about 20 minutes when she received the license plate number of the vehicle being driven by the shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan II.
At about 11:20 a.m., she plugged the number into her license plate reader. It was a hit. According to data captured by cameras mounted on her cruiser, the car had passed her less than three minutes earlier.
“With the information coming through, I knew I had the vehicle,” Neff, an 11-year state police veteran, said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “I was not sure if it was the gentleman at all.”
With a little good luck and a lot of disciplined, strategic police work, Wednesday’s massive manhunt ended without further violence, except for the final shot with which Flanagan took his own life.
After the positive hit, Neff took off after a Chevrolet Sonic that Flanagan had rented. After spotting it at 11:24 a.m. heading east on I-66 near the 8 mile marker, Neff called for backup. As help arrived, Neff and the others tried to pull the car over at the 15.6 mile marker.
Flanagan, who police said was not speeding, didn’t stop immediately, but he didn’t go much further.
About 11:30 a.m., his car veered into a median embankment at the 17.1 mile marker near Linden, where officers found him with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Flanagan was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he died a few hours later.
Neff said Flanagan did not change his behavior after he saw police were attempting to pull him over. Other than straddling lanes, there was nothing unusual about his driving before the crash, Neff said.
Police would not go into detail about weapons or evidence found in the car.
A large stretch of the highway was closed Wednesday afternoon as a helicopter circled overhead. Reporters who tried to approach the scene through the woods were told to leave and head to a spot off the highway on the westbound side, out of sight from the crash site.
Police also did not say where they believe Flanagan may have been going.
“It’s an ongoing investigation,” said Sgt. F.L. Tyler, a state police spokesman for the Culpeper division.
Police said the attempt to stop Flanagan was timed strategically to avoid a single-lane work zone and other interstate traffic.
“There were no other vehicles in front of him except for law enforcement and no other vehicles behind him except for law enforcement,” Neff said.
Despite the day’s drama, Neff was stoic as she took questions about her role in bringing the manhunt to a successful end.
“We have some of the best training in the world,” Neff said. “The only thing that kicks in is our training. We don’t have time to think about personal emotions.”
Asked how the pursuit of Flanagan compares with the rest of her law-enforcement career, Neff said she has had “some tremendous experiences.”
“But this has not been my worst,” she said.
After finishing the matter-of-fact news conference, Tyler ushered Neff back to her cruiser, where he leaned into the window for a few final words. Whatever was said, Neff smiled.