Virginia Shooting: WDBJ Executives Describe Troubled Tenure of Gunman

Vester Flanagan’s 11-month tenure was marked by confrontations with fellow workers, failure to check facts on a story and generally “poor news judgment,” culminating in his termination in February 2012, when he reacted angrily and said that he would “make a stink and it was going to be in the headlines,” the station said in a statement on Thursday.

At a press conference, Jeffrey Marks, president and general manager of WDBJ, said that they were “still at a loss to figure out what happened to him in those two and a half years,” noting that employees reported seeing Flanagan in public places and “there were no confrontations.”

Flanagan, who went by the on-air name of Bryce Williams, shot and killed reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, who were gunned down as they were doing a live shot during WDBJ’s morning show on Wednesday. A state trooper eventually spotted Flanagan on Interstate 66. He refused to stop and eventually ran off the road. The trooper found him in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and he was pronounced dead about two hours later.

After he was fired, Flanagan filed a complaint of harassment and discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the EEOC denied the claim, the station said. A civil action also was dismissed.

“Vester’s behavior annoyed a lot of people in the newsroom” during his tenure, Marks said, adding that he “would defend the actions of every single person in the newsroom when he was here.”

The station said that it has been receiving an outpouring of support from newsrooms across the country, as well as the local community.

But the station has been thrust into a situation of being a part of the story, played out violently on air, that it is also covering.

Kelly Zuber, news director of WDBJ, said that they have not sent news teams out on live shots since Wednesday “out of an abundance of caution.

“I know a lot of other news organizations across the country are wrestling with that,” she said. “We will evaluate that as we go. And we will also consult with our staff and see what their comfort level is with this. Law enforcement has actually reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, if you are doing a live shot, we’ll be there. We’ll help you.’ So we appreciate that.”

She added, “I have the greatest news team, and I love each and every one of them and they have performed so well.”

The shooting attack occurred at Smith Mountain Lake, where Parker was interviewing Vicki Gardner, executive director of the local chamber of commerce. She was shot in the back, and was listed in good condition on Thursday.

Investigators are still trying to determine the timeline of events in the hours and days before the shootings, and how Flanagan gained information that WDBJ would be at the Smith Mountain Lake location, which is about 25 miles from Roanoke.

At the press conference, Zuber noted that the morning show was two hours long, and that it was “conceivable” that someone could have seen Parker and Ward’s first live shot at 5:10 a.m. and then traveled from Roanoke to Smith Mountain Lake. The shootings took place at about 6:30 a.m.

“We don’t know and it’s still under investigation,” she said.

The station said that they conducted a “standard protocol” background check of Flanagan and turned up positive references. After he was hired in March 2012, however, his “job performance and his interaction with his co-workers led his manager to place Flanagan on a succession of performance improvement plans. Only slight improvement was noted each time,” the station said.

Marks said that they made it mandatory that he seek help from their employee assistance program, which provides counseling, and that “he complied with what we asked him to do.”

The station said that he was placed on a final warning in December for failing to check his facts in a news story and “generally, for poor news judgment.”

In January 2013, the station said, he accused a “photographer of making trouble for him by questioning a decision to go on private property in pursuit of a story.” He raised concerns with the HR department for “perceived unfairness, which were immediately investigated and found to be without merit.”

The station said that shortly after that, he confronted an anchor assigned to review one of his scripts.

It was then that the decision was made to fire him. He told two news managers and an HR staffer that “they would have to call the police because he was going to ‘make a stink and it was going to be in the headlines,'” the station said.

The HR representative called 911, and police escorted him out.

On the way out, the station said, he handed a wooden cross to the news director and said, “You’ll need this.” He also made a “derogatory comment” to Ward as he left. CNN reported that Ward picked up a camera and filmed Flanagan’s exit from the newsroom, with Flanagan saying to him, “lose your big gut.”

“No reasonable person would have taken any of the cited incidents as discrimination and harassment,” Marks said.

Employees of WDBJ wore ribbons on their lapels to the press conference. One was maroon, in honor of Ward’s alma mater Virginia Tech, and teal, “which was just Alison’s favorite color.”

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