ROANOKE - A former reporter for WDBJ-TV gunned down two ex-colleagues during a live broadcast at Smith Mountain Lake early Wednesday and posted a video of the murders and bragged about them on Twitter and Facebook before fatally shooting himself after he was found by a state trooper some 200 miles away.
The evident derangement of Vester Lee Flanagan II, 41, stood in contrast to the personalities of his victims - enthusiastic young journalists who had grown up in the Roanoke region and went to work at a respected local station, and a woman known as the voice of tourism at Smith Mountain Lake.
Flanagan, known professionally as Bryce Williams, attacked reporter Alison Parker, 24, and videographer Adam Ward, 27, while they were interviewing local chamber of commerce official Vicki Gardner for a story on tourism. He opened fire just before 6:45 a.m. during the live broadcast on the CBS affiliate’s morning show.
Parker and Ward were declared dead at the scene. Gardner, 62, the executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, was wounded, underwent surgery and was reported to be in stable condition.
Bridgewater Plaza, the site of the shootings, sits on the edge of Smith Mountain Lake, about one hour southeast of Roanoke. The plaza serves tourists in the lake community, with a marina, arcade, miniature golf course and gift shops.
The lake-facing side of the plaza was quiet Wednesday afternoon as police continued working at the crime scene. Two fire boats floated just beyond the cove turning boaters away.
Flanagan had unsuccessfully sued WDBJ, which had fired him in 2013 after he had worked there briefly. Earlier he had been employed at several other stations across the country.
“It really stopped me in my tracks this morning,” Franklin County Sheriff W.Q. "Bill" Overton said at an afternoon news conference. “Like many viewers, I was watching this morning’s broadcast. And I couldn’t understand, really, what was happening myself at that time.”
Flanagan, who had left his gray Mustang days earlier in a parking lot at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport, was spotted in a rental Chevrolet Sonic subcompact about 11:30 a.m. by state trooper Pamela Neff on eastbound Interstate 66 in Fauquier County at the 8.6 mile marker.
After failing to stop for the trooper, Flanagan crashed on the interstate at mile marker 17.1 and was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, officials said.
"He was not going that fast," said Neff, who flagged Flanagan's rental using an automated license plate reader. "He was going the speed limit."
Initial reports were that Flanagan was found fatally shot, but he was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital and died there just before 1:30 p.m.
Capturing the mortally wounded Flanagan ended a morning in which he posted a video of the killings on his Facebook page and directed viewers to it from his Twitter account. He tweeted seven times over a 25-minute period roughly five hours after the shooting. He concluded by tweeting his video of the shooting prior to Twitter closing his account minutes later.
"It's obvious that this gentleman was disturbed in some way in the way things had transpired at some point in his life," Overton said. "It appears things were spiraling out of control."
A man identifying himself as Flanagan called ABC News shortly after 10 a.m. and said he had just shot two people. At 8:26 a.m., the network had received a 23-page rambling fax from Flanagan, outlining a host of grievances.
The caller "introduced himself as Bryce, but also said his legal name was Vester Lee Flanagan, and that he shot two people this morning," ABC said on its website. "While on the phone, he said authorities are 'after me,' and 'all over the place.' He hung up. ABC News contacted the authorities immediately and provided them with the fax."
In his fax, Flanagan expressed admiration for Virginia Tech mass murderer Seung-Hui Cho and Columbine High School killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, according to ABC's website. He also said he had suffered discrimination and bullying as a gay black man.
Flanagan said he was motivated by the shootings in Charleston, S.C., where a young white supremacist was arrested in the killings of nine black churchgoers.
Flanagan, who the network said had contacted them earlier to pitch a story but did not provide details, quoted a long list of complaints in the fax and at one point calls the document a "Suicide Note for Friends and Family."
“The church shooting was the tipping point … but my anger has been building steadily ... I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM!!!!” ABC quoted Flanagan's fax as saying.
Overton declined to comment on the ABC fax, but said it "certainly goes to show where the gentleman's mind was the night before - what was taking place there, (and) that there was some forethought to the chain of events."
In May 2014, Flanagan filed suit against the station in Roanoke General District Court, seeking money he felt he was owed and additional damages. His suit alleged discrimination by the station and named most of the WDBJ staff in his complaint, but in July 2014, the case was dismissed by a judge. Court records also show that he sued a television station where he formerly worked in Florida.
Justin Ward, a WDBJ reporter who overlapped with Flanagan, said he was always an odd presence at the station. "He was just an unusual reporter with how he presented himself on TV," said Ward, who is not related to Adam Ward.
Jeffrey A. Marks, the president and general manager of WDBJ, was on the air for hours Wednesday and said he could not explain the rage that Flanagan directed at Parker and Adam Ward.
"I remember he was an unhappy man who had a temper," Marks said. "We had to let him go."
Still, Marks said, "I can't figure out any connection with those people, who are among the kindest, nicest people who worked here."
The killings also struck close to home in two nearby communities and campuses. Parker was from Martinsville and a graduate of James Madison University, and Ward grew up in Daleville and was a graduate of Virginia Tech.
At the station, Marks said, "it's alternating between people trying to be professional and gather the news and put the facts out in front of our viewers and users, and hugging and crying."
That the slayings occurred during a live broadcast, and to the horror of friends and colleagues who watched from the control room, compounded the profound mourning at WDBJ.
"We're scarred by this for life," Marks said. "It's just going to be a long time to heal."
And in the close-knit world of broadcasters in Virginia, journalists mourned the deaths of Parker and Ward. The slayings also prompted extra attention to security for television stations whose reporters are often celebrities in the community.
WWBT-NBC12 in Richmond put its building on lockdown most of Wednesday and posted armed security, said Kym Grinnage, vice president and station manager. He said the station also contacted Virginia State Police and Richmond police.
Grinnage said the station, which is on Midlothian Turnpike in South Richmond, took the precautions because some of its staff members have ties with WDBJ and the stations have collaborated on many stories.
Marks somberly recalled the chain of events in an early morning interview with CNN.
"You send people into war zones ... and you worry that they're going to get hurt," Marks said. "How can you expect something like this to happen?"
Marks described being in his car about 6:50 a.m. when his news director called and asked, "Are you aware of what just happened on the air?"
Marks said, "Your mind immediately goes to the worst and then you hope it's something less than that."
Marks described the harrowing footage: "They were doing a routine interview, you saw Alison on camera with the person she was interviewing, you heard several shots fired." He said it appeared Ward was shot first, and then Parker as she ran to escape the gunfire.
Ward's fiancée, Melissa Ott, a producer at the station, was working in the control room, Marks said.
"So she saw it happen?" CNN asked.
"It's hard to imagine, isn't it?" Marks said. "It really is. And it was her last day here. She was moving on to a station in Charlotte. It was going to be a day of celebration here for her."
WDBJ anchor Chris Hurst, Parker's boyfriend, described her as a "hometown girl trying to do good, and she was doing a fantastic job." He said she "barely knew" Flanagan.
"But you are exposed in different parts of this job. You’re exposed when you go out in the community and, you know, everybody in TV news talks about what would happen if the worst could possibly happen, and I can say with certainty that this is the worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody in this job."
As for Flanagan, Hurst said, "I knew him only as a co-worker. Back then he didn’t work for us for very long, and I had no real substantive interactions with him other than office pleasantries, really. And she was an intern while he was here. ... But other than that, there’s really no relationship."
About 50 people gathered at a vigil late Wednesday at the station. Earlier in the day, Marks had gathered his staff together at the building. They sang "Amazing Grace" together and recited the Lord's Prayer.
"I thought it was important that all of us get together and be a family," he said. "What can you do except bring people together?"
He reflected on the many tragedies the station has covered, and the shock they've registered on the community, nation and world.
“This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Southwestern Virginia, does it? Except, it does," Marks said. "And it happens in a school in Connecticut, and it happens at a movie theater in Colorado. And how do we explain it?”