Two young journalists in Virginia were gunned down by a former colleague while they conducted a live television interview on Wednesday morning – and hours later the suspected shooter posted his own shocking video of the attacks on social media before committing suicide.
WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were attacked while they were interviewing Vicki Gardner, the head of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, for a feature story at the Bridgewater Plaza in Moneta. Parker and Ward died at the scene. Garnder was injured and underwent surgery and being treated at an area hospital, officials said.
A WDBJ representative told BuzzFeed News that Parker, who had just turned 24, was dating Chris Hurst, the station's 6 o'clock news anchor. Ward, 27, had been engaged to journalist Melissa Ott.
"They grew up in this area they were part of our community," Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton said at a news conference.
In two of his own videos of the incident that were posted – and later removed – on Twitter and Facebook, suspected gunman Vester Lee Flanagan II walked up to the three people and held the gun at them for several seconds before opening fire on the cameraman and then a shocked Parker.
Flanagan "appeared and approached them and started shooting," Overton said.
Overton added that Flanagan, who also went by Bryce Williams on television, was the only suspect.
When Ward was shot, his footage captured Parker's reaction. When he fell to the floor, he captured a blurry image of the shooter that was then widely distributed.
Ward's live shot then cut to a stunned anchor in the WDBJ studio, who along with her colleagues began to report the news.
Flanagan, 41, was at WDBJ between 2012 and 2013 as a multimedia journalist, WDBJ General Manager Jeff Marks said Wednesday.
"Vester was an unhappy man," Marks said. "He quickly gathered a reputation of someone who was difficult to work with. ...After many incidents of his anger, we dismissed him. He did not take that well. We had to call police to escort him from the building."
Thomas Faison, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told BuzzFeed News Wednesday that investigators had recovered a Glock 19 pistol that belonged to Flanagan.
Faison said the gun had been purchased "weeks ago," and that he had apparently passed a background check that is required for buying a gun.
Flanagan also had a second gun, Faison added.
Here's a screengrab of the suspected shooter from the cameraman's video of the incident:
The shooter reportedly left his Mustang at the Roanoke–Blacksburg Regional Airport, Overton said, and got in a Chevy Sonic that he rented earlier this month. The victim's colleagues then said he apparently tracked the news team to their location.
After the shooting Flanagan fled in the rental car, Overton said.
Flanagan was tracked to I-81 and then I-66 East at before 11:30 a.m., Overton said.
At that point a Virginia State Police trooper's license plate reader alerted her that Flanagan's car drove by. She followed him and turned on her lights when backup arrived on the road, authorities said.
Flanagan allegedly refused to stop, and sped away, authorities said. About two minutes later, the car ran off the road into a median. When troopers approached they saw Flanagan had a gunshot wound. He died about 1:30 p.m., authorities said.
In a statement to WDBJ7 on Wednesday, Flanagan's family expressed their "deepest condolences" to friends and family:
Dear News WDBJ7,
It is with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we express our deepest condolences 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 victims. Our family is asking that the media respect our privacy.
The Family of Vester Flanagan
Flanagan had previously filed a lawsuit and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the station, according to court records and Marks. The suit was settled.
"He's someone who came to mind instantly," Marks told CBS when asked about when he first heard a former employee was the suspect.
ABC News reported that between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning it had received 23 pages via fax from a man claiming to be Bryce Williams. ABC said it had turned the document over to authorities.
The network later reported the faxes contained references to a number of infamous mass shootings, including the murders of nine black parishioners in Charleston in June.
"Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15," he wrote in the faxes, according to ABC. "What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims' initials on them."
He also reportedly made references to Virginia Tech killer Seung Hui Cho and Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold. "Also, I was influenced by Seung–Hui Cho. That's my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got…just sayin'," he wrote.
ABC reported he complained of being attacked for being a gay black man. He also reportedly telephoned the ABC newsroom after the shooting to claim he was responsible.
The Washington Post published internal emails from the station about Flanagan. When he was fired, the documents said, he told his bosses they would "have to call police" to get him out. The documents suggest police were called.
When Flanagan refused to leave, Ward, one of the people he allegedly shot and killed, began recording him, according to the records:
This was being recorded by Adam Ward; Bryce turned his attention to him said something about paparazzi, told Adam he needed to "lose your big gut," and again flipped the camera off. To my knowledge, in addition to the police officers, this episode was witnessed by Dave Seidel, Eller, Adam Ward, Alan Novitsky, Sam Doyle and Leo Hirsbrunner. As he was being escorted from the newsroom Bryce handed me a small wooden cross that was on his desk and said, "You?ll need this."
He was then escorted out of the building. In addition to the first two officers who responded, two others responded to the front of the building and talked with Bryce and Monica for about 5 minutes before he ultimately left the premises."
Nadia Singh, an employee who is named in the documents, told BuzzFeed News they are authentic.
Hours after the shooting, Twitter user Bryce Williams uploaded apparent video of his approaching and shooting the journalists to Twitter and Facebook. The videos were removed from both social media sites. Below are screengrabs:
In a statement, Parker's father described his grief as "unbearable."
He told the Washington Post that he heard his daughter was involved from the station.
Initially, we had some hope, but I knew in my heart of hearts," Andy Parker, 62, said in an interview with the Post. "Alison would have called me immediately to say she was okay."
"My grief is unbearable," said her father, a banking industry recruiter from Martinsville, Va. "Is this real? Am I going to wake up? I am crying my eyes out. I don't know if there's anybody in this world or another father who could be more proud of their daughter.
Virginia's governor said he was "heartbroken."
During a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Terry McAuliffe reiterated his stance on gun control and past efforts to employ stricter regulations on the process of acquiring firearms.
"Twice I have brought legislation before the general assembly," he said. "Twice I have asked for background checks. Twice now they have rejected background checks in the commonwealth."
He continued to list the times he has turned down legislation that sought to ease gun control in Virginia, including laws that would allow citizens to purchase machine guns and carry loaded shotguns in their cars.
"There are individuals in this country who should not be allowed to own a firearm," he said. "It's just, to me, common sense, and it's just tragic that this kind of legislation cannot be passed and signed into law."
White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest said in the early afternoon he hadn't yet briefed President Obama on the shooting. "This is another example of gun violence that is becoming all too common," Earnest said, adding, a "very vocal portion of the U.S. population – and I believe it's a minority – ... has a lot of sway in Congress when it comes to issues related to guns."