2 US journalists shot dead on live TV; dead suspect was 'angered by discrimination'

Journalists Alison Parker (top left) and Adam Ward (bottom left) were allegedly shot and killed by Vester Lee Flanagan during a live TV interview.
Journalists Alison Parker (top left) and Adam Ward (bottom left) were allegedly shot and killed by Vester Lee Flanagan during a live TV interview. PHOTOS: WDBJ7/TWITTER, REUTERS
A video frame grab shows Ms Alison Parker (left) interviewing Ms Vicki Gardner before she was shot and killed.
A video frame grab shows Ms Alison Parker (left) interviewing Ms Vicki Gardner before she was shot and killed. PHOTO: AFP
Ms Alison Parker (left) reacting in shock as shots ring out during her interview with Ms Vicki Gardner.
Ms Alison Parker (left) reacting in shock as shots ring out during her interview with Ms Vicki Gardner.PHOTO: AFP
Journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot and killed during a live TV interview.
Journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot and killed during a live TV interview. PHOTO: WDBJ7/TWITTER
Vester Lee Flanagan, who used to be known on-air as Bryce Williams, in a handout photo from TV station WDBJ7, which let him go two years ago.
Vester Lee Flanagan, who used to be known on-air as Bryce Williams, in a handout photo from TV station WDBJ7, which let him go two years ago.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS/AFP) - Two television journalists were killed during a live broadcast in Virginia on Wednesday (Aug 26), shot by a suspect who was a former employee of the TV station and who called himself a “powder keg” of anger over what he saw as racial discrimination at work and elsewhere in the United States.

The African-American suspect, 41-year-old Vester Lee Flanagan, shot himself as police were pursuing him on a Virginia highway hours after the shooting.

He died later at a hospital, police said.

The journalists who were killed were reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27. 

 
 

Both journalists were white, as is a woman whom they were interviewing.

The woman was wounded and was in stable condition, a hospital spokesman said.

Social media postings by a person who appeared to be Flanagan indicated the suspect had grievances against the station, CBS affiliate WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia, which let him go two years ago.

The person also posted video that appeared to show the attack filmed from the shooter’s vantage point.

Flanagan sent ABC News a 23-page fax about two hours after the shooting, saying his attack was triggered by the June 17 mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the network said.

Nine people were killed, and a white man has been charged in that rampage.

The network cited Flanagan as saying he had suffered racial discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying at work.

He had been attacked by black men and white women, and for being a gay black man, he said.

“The church shooting was the tipping point... but my anger has been building steadily,” ABC News cited the fax as saying.

“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while... just waiting to go BOOM!”

The on-air shooting occurred at about 6.45am EDT (6.45pm Singapore time) at Bridgewater Plaza, a Smith Mountain Lake recreation site about 320km south-west of Washington.

The broadcast was abruptly interrupted by the sound of gunshots as Parker and the woman being interviewed, Ms Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, screamed and ducked for cover.

Hours after the shooting, someone claiming to have filmed it posted videos online. The videos were posted to a Twitter account and on Facebook by a man identifying himself as Bryce Williams, which was Flanagan’s on-air name.

The videos were removed shortly afterward.

One video clearly showed a handgun as the person filming approached the woman reporter.

The person purporting to be Williams also posted “I filmed the shooting see Facebook” and said one of the victims had “made racist comments”.

In the fax to ABC News, Flanagan praised shooters who had carried out mass killings at Virginia Tech University in 2007 and at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.

ABC News said Flanagan called the network shortly after 10am. He said he had shot two people, police were after him and then hung up.

ABC News then contacted the authorities and turned over the fax, which had arrived about 90 minutes earlier, the network said.

The suspect shot himself as Virginia State Police were closing in on a rental car on Interstate 66 in Fauquier County, WDBJ7 said.

Virginia state police said the suspect refused to stop when spotted by troopers and sped away.

Minutes later, the suspect’s vehicle ran off the road and crashed, police said in a statement, adding that the troopers approached the vehicle and found the driver with a gunshot wound.

He was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital near Washington, where he died.

“It’s obvious that this gentleman was disturbed in some way at the way things had transpired at some part of his life,” Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton told a news conference.

“It appears things were spiraling out of control, but we’re still looking into that,” he said. “We still have a lengthy investigation to conduct and that’s our focus as we move forward.” 

 
 

Flanagan had sued another station where he worked in Florida, alleging that he had been discriminated against because he was black.  

He said he was called a “monkey” by a producer in a lawsuit filed in federal court against a Tallahassee station, WTWC, in 2000.

He also said a supervisor at the station called black people lazy.

The Florida case was settled and dismissed the next year, court records show.  WDBJ7 president and general manager Jeff Marks said he could not figure out a particular connection between Flanagan and the two dead journalists.

Speaking to CNN about Flanagan, he added: “Do you imagine that everyone who leaves your company under difficult circumstances is going to take aim?

“Why were Parker and Ward the targets, and not I or somebody else in management?” he said.

According to his social media sites, Flanagan attended San Francisco State University. A university spokesman said he graduated in 1995 with a degree in radio and television.

The station’s early morning broadcast showed Ms Parker interviewing Ms Gardner about the lake and tourism development in the area.

Gunshots erupted, and as Mr Ward fell, his camera hit the ground but kept running.

An image caught on camera showed what appeared to be a man in dark clothing facing the camera with a weapon in his right hand.

The station described the two dead journalists as an ambitious reporter-and-cameraman team who often produced light and breezy feature stories for the morning programme.

“I cannot tell you how much they were loved,” Mr Marks said.

They were both engaged to be married to other people at the station.

On her Facebook page, Ms Parker – whose birthday was just a week ago – described herself as the “mornin’ reporter” at WDBJ and a ballroom dancing enthusiast.

Her boyfriend, WDBJ anchor Chris Hurst, said on Twitter that he and Ms Parker were “very much in love,” adding: “I am numb.”

“We were together almost nine months. It was the best nine months of our lives. We wanted to get married,” he said.

“She worked with Adam every day,” he added. “They were a team. I am heartbroken for his fiancee.”

Mr Ward’s fiancee, Ms Melissa Ott, a producer at the TV station, was in the control room when the shooting occurred and watched it unfold, Mr Marks told CNN.

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it,” the grief-stricken station manager said.

Ms Ott was working her last day at WDBJ before moving on to another station in another city, and looking forward to a farewell party with her colleagues.

“This was going to be a day of celebration for her time here and wishing her good luck,” Mr Marks said.

A couple living across from the shopping centre where the shooting took place said police burst into their apartment and awakened them at gunpoint.

Police said they were looking for the shooter, according to the woman, who identified herself only as Annie.

“I moved from Philly (Philadelphia) to get away from that kind of stuff,” she said, adding that she had been in the area a few months.

The White House said the shooting was another example of gun violence that is “becoming all too common.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, reflecting frustration that President Barack Obama has expressed over his inability to push through laws to tighten gun laws, told reporters that Congress could pass legislation that would have a “tangible impact on reducing gun violence in this country”.

Media watchdog group Reporters without Borders (RSF) said initial reports seemed to indicate the reporters “were personally targeted in an act of revenge and not because of their jobs”.

RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire called the killings an “unprecedented tragedy.”

Mr Marks said station staff were very emotional and planning a memorial gathering later on Wednesday.

Of the shooter, an emotional Marks said: “If he dies, he took the coward’s way out. If he lives, he’s due due process and this could be a mistake. I doubt it.”