On-air killings gripped millions in social media storm

2015-08-27 11:14
A photo provided by WDBJ-TV, shows Vester Lee Flanagan II, who killed WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward in Moneta. (WDBJ-TV, AP)

A photo provided by WDBJ-TV, shows Vester Lee Flanagan II, who killed WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward in Moneta. (WDBJ-TV, AP)

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Moneta - The fatal shooting of a reporter and cameraman unfolded on live TV during the early morning show, as tens of thousands of viewers watched a horrified anchor struggle to comprehend what had happened.

Within hours, the carefully scripted carnage carried out by a disgruntled former colleague spread to millions of viewers gripped by what had transformed into a social media storm. The governor initially described a car chase on his weekly radio show, with police on the shooter's tail on an interstate highway.

Then, social media posts referencing the slain TV pair surfaced on an account under an on-air pseudonym used by the gunman, culminating with a first-person video of the ambush filmed by the shooter.

The 56-second clip shows Vester Lee Flanagan II quietly approach WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, gun in hand, as they conduct an interview. But Ward's camera was aimed at the mini-golf course nearby instead of the reporter.

So the shooter waited, cursing Parker under his breath, for 20 seconds until the live television picture was back on the reporter. Then he fired eight shots without saying a word.

The attack seemed carefully planned. Flanagan was captured in a rental car he reserved at some point before the shootings; his own Mustang was found abandoned at the local airport, Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton said.

The interview was done at a shopping centre not yet open for the day at a remote lake in Moneta, some 25 miles away from WDBJ's studios in Roanoke. The station promoted where the reporter would be, including a plug on Twitter just a half hour before the shooting.

About three hours after the killing, ABC News reported it received a 23-page faxed statement from Bryce Williams, the on-air name used by Flanagan.

Unlike so many crimes, which have to be pieced together in reverse, this one played out in real time on Twitter and Facebook. The station's live footage of the shooting was being shared over and over before even station managers knew the fate of their employees. Some 40 000 viewers had initially tuned in, including the local sheriff, and heard Parker scream. They saw her run as the camera fell, capturing a fleeting image of a man holding a handgun.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe's assurance that an arrest was "imminent" spread quickly, only to be followed soon after with a post on the Twitter account Flanagan apparently used under the pseudonym: "I filmed the shooting see Facebook." It was there that the video appeared.

Parker, Ward and their interview subject, local economic development official Vicki Gardner, don't appear to notice Flanagan. They react as he opens fire, and Flanagan's video goes to black after eight shots are fired; seven more are heard before it ends, more methodical than the initial burst.

It wasn't Flanagan's first encounter with the pair. The 41-year-old had been fired by the station in 2013 and had to be escorted out of the building, President and General Manager Jeffrey Marks said.

On Twitter, Flanagan described workplace conflicts with both of his victims. He said Parker had made racist comments and that she was still hired after he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ward had reported him to human resources, he said.

Flanagan alleged that other employees made racially tinged comments to him, but his EEOC claim was dismissed and none of his allegations could be corroborated, Marks said.

Dan Dennison, now a state government spokesperson in Hawaii, was the WDBJ news director who hired Flanagan in 2012 and fired him in 2013, largely for performance issues, he said.

"We did a thorough investigation and could find no evidence that anyone had racially discriminated against this man," Dennison said. "You just never know when you're going to work how a potentially unhinged or unsettled person might impact your life in such a tragic way."

Flanagan was fired at least twice from small-market stations after managers said he caused problems with other employees.

In the fax to ABC, Flanagan called himself a gay black man who had been mistreated by people of all races. He said he bought the gun two days after nine black people were killed in a June 17 shooting at a Charleston church and wanted to use it to retaliate for what authorities called a racially motivated shooting. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the gun was purchased legally.

The fax also included admiration for the gunmen who carried out mass killings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

He described himself as a "human powder keg" that was "just waiting to go BOOM!!!!"

Both Parker and Ward had worked at other stations, but a return to Roanoke meant a return to the area where they grew up. Parker had been dating a fellow anchor at WDBJ, Chris Hurst, who called her "the most radiant woman I ever met." Ward was engaged to station producer Melissa Ott, who watched from the control room as he was shot, and was known as a happy-go-lucky guy who seldom missed a football game at his alma mater, Virginia Tech.

Their colleagues, stunned and grieving, still covered the story as they would any other to honour the slain journalists.

"Our hearts are broken," Marks said. "Our sympathy goes to the entire staff here, but also the parents and family of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, who were just out doing their job today."

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