Crime & Courts

Virginia reporter, photographer slayed; alleged gunman dies

@charlotteobserver.com, abethea@charlotteobserver.com

Alison Parker and Adam Ward were doing a feature story in Moneta, Va. when they were shot.
Alison Parker and Adam Ward were doing a feature story in Moneta, Va. when they were shot. WDBJ-TV

A reporter and photographer for a Virginia television station were killed Wednesday after a shooting during a live broadcast from a shopping center, the station reported. Authorities said the suspected gunman, 41-year-old Vester Lee Flanagan, has died at the hospital after shooting himself while fleeing from police.

Flanagan, who investigators said went by “Bryce Williams” on air, had been hospitalized after speeding away from troopers on the interstate and crashed a car off the side of the road, Virginia State Police said. He was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and was being treated for life-threatening injuries at Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia before he died.

Police said Flanagan opened fire on Alison Parker and Adam Ward, who worked for WDBJ, the CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va., while they were doing a story in Moneta, Va., around 6:45 a.m. Wednesday.

The woman Parker, the reporter, was interviewing was also hurt in the shooting. Vicki Gardner, executive director for the Smith Mountain Regional Chamber of Commerce, underwent surgery but is in stable condition, according to Chris Turnbull, spokesman with Carillion Clinic in Roanoke.

Video shows Parker interviewing Gardner about tourism on Bridgewater Plaza in Franklin County, about 25 miles southeast of Roanoke. She was smiling when suddenly at least eight shots were heard. Parker screams, runs and can be heard saying, “Oh my God.”

As the camera drops to the ground, it captures what appears to be a fleeting image of the shooter. The person is wearing black pants and a blue top and appears to be holding a handgun.

The station then switches back to a shot of an anchor back at the station, who has a shocked expression on her face.

Flanagan fled the scene before deputies arrived, and drove his 2009 Ford Mustang to Roanoke Regional Airport, Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton said during an afternoon news conference. The gunman then fled the airport in a Chevrolet Sonic he rented earlier.

Virginia State Police Sgt. Rick Garless said a trooper found Flanagan on Interstate 66 in the northeast portion of the state and tracked him until backup arrived. Flanagan refused to pull over and crashed his vehicle off the side of the road. Authorities found him with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was airlifted to a hospital, where he later died, the sheriff said.

Investigators haven’t uncovered a motive in the shooting but are conducting a homicide investigation. The slayings of Parker and Ward mark the first two deaths of journalists in the United States since 2007, according to the Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

WDBJ General Manager Jeffery Marks said on air that Flanagan worked for the station two years ago but was let go after months of disruptive behavior. Once he was fired, Flanagan, who Marks called an “unhappy man,” was ushered out of the station by police. He told CNN there was no indication Flanagan had any reason to target Ward and Parker, although he remained in town after he left the station and made accusations against employees some time ago.

“I don’t think Alison or that individual overlapped here,” Marks told CNN. “I can’t figure out any connection with those people.”

A Twitter account with the profile name “Bryce Williams” was suspended earlier Wednesday after someone claiming responsibility for filming the shooting tweeted a video from the gunman’s perspective firing on Parker and Ward. The video was also posted on Facebook, which deactivated an account belonging to “Bryce Williams.”

The user of the “Bryce Williams” Twitter account posted messages making accusations of racist comments at the workplace and claiming that he filed a report with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Marks confirmed to The New York Times that the complaint had been filed, but said it was dismissed as baseless. He said the racist comments could not be corroborated, The Times reported. “We think they were fabricated.”

It wasn’t the first time Flanagan had alleged racism in the workplace. In 2000, he sued WTWC-TV in Leon County, Fla., where he worked as an anchor, according to court documents.

Among a series of complaints about co-workers and supervisors using racial epithets in reference to black crime suspects and interview subjects, Flanagan claimed a producer referred to him as a “monkey” and he was fired after reporting the slurs to the EEOC and Florida Commission on Human Relations, court documents show.

The news station denied Flanagan’s allegations, saying in court documents that he was terminated for poor performance, misbehavior towards co-workers, refusal to follow directions and his use of profanity on the premises.

Alison Parker: ‘People wanted to be around her’

Parker, who recently celebrated her 24th birthday, had worked on WDBJ’s morning team since 2014. Before that, she worked for more than a year as the Jacksonville bureau chief for WCTI NewsChannel 12 in New Bern, NC, according to her station and LinkedIn bio.

“She was the most radiant woman I ever met,” tweeted Chris Hurst, a WDBJ anchor who was dating Parker. “And for some reason she loved me back. She loved her family, her parents and her brother.” Hurst said the two had recently moved in together and wanted to get married.

Scott Nichols, news director for WCTI, said he hired Parker in December 2012 as a general assignment reporter just months after college. Even then, she had a great personality and impressive professional drive, he said.

“From the initial phone interview to all of her time here, she loved this business and just wanted to cover any type of story and grow,” he said. “She would be, after hours, at the magistrate’s office looking for documents and news stories...if there was breaking news in the morning and weekend.”

Nichols said he kept in touch with Parker even when she left the station last May. Just over a month ago, she called him for career advice, he said.

“She was just one of those happy, always positive, always energetic people,” he said. “People wanted to be around her. She was an awesome person.”

Adam Ward: ‘Full of life’

Ward, 27, had been a photojournalist at WDBJ since 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile. Photographer Adam Ward was planning to move to Charlotte with his fiance Melissa Ott, who had just accepted at job at WSOC (Channel 9). Ott was a morning producer at WDBJ and was marking her last day at the Virginia station on Wednesday. She was in the control room during the shooting, CNN reported.

“Adam was our go-to guy,” WDBJ spokesman Mike Morgan said. “He pretty much was available to do anything that we asked. He did live shots during our morning show for several years.”

T.J. Eberle, a Charlotte entrepreneur and business owner, said Ward had been his nephew’s best friend in high school and roommate in college at Virginia Tech. As Ward and Ott prepared to move into an apartment in Ballantyne, Ward told Eberle that he was ready to leave the news business and asked for help in finding a new career.

They last spoke on Sunday.

Said Eberle: “One of the things I found interesting was the comment he made to me, he says, ‘You know TJ...I’m a little burned out in this job, going to film people’s worse days, whether it be a fire or crime scene.’”

Eberle said he compiled a list of about 20 people he was going to speak with to help Ward land a job in marketing or public relations.

“I literally have his résumé sitting on my coffee room table right now,” Eberle said Wednesday morning. “To see the news this morning and see it unfold is just shocking and heartbreaking. He was full of life. He certainly enjoyed sports and always had a smile on his face.”

Staff writer Mark Washburn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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