Virginia shooting: Vester Flanagan had been ordered to go to workplace counselling
Alison Parker, Adam Ward shot while filming live broadcast for CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va.
The disgruntled former employee of a Virginia television station who gunned down two of his ex-colleagues on-air had been ordered to undergo workplace counselling because of his flagging performance, anger and inability to get along with co-workers, the station manager of WDBJ says.
"We made it mandatory that he seek help from our Employee Assistance Program," said Jeff Marks, general manager of WDBJ, at a Thursday news conference in Roanoke, Va.
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Marks said Vester Flanagan, who went by the name Bryce Williams on air, was ordered to undergo counselling because of his behaviour toward colleagues and his "performance issues."
"When we send somebody to the employee assistance program that can be for any number of reasons. It doesn't necessarily signal any kind of mental health issue," Marks said.
He said Flanagan's behaviour "annoyed a lot of people in the newsroom" and that he had a number of negative interactions with co-workers while working at the station from March 2012 to February 2013.
Flanagan, 41, fatally shot TV reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, early Wednesday while they were filming a live interview. He later died in hospital from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The woman being interviewed, Vicki Gardner of the local chamber of commerce, was also shot but survived and is recovering in hospital.
Threatened to 'make a stink'
Marks told reporters Thursday that Flanagan had positive references and a clean background check when he was hired. Over time, however, problems with his performance and confrontational interactions with co-workers led his manager to place him on a "succession of performance improvement plans," which resulted in only "slight improvement."
"He was placed on a final warning in December 2012 for failure to check his facts in a news story and generally for poor news judgment," Marks said.
He was fired two months later and escorted from the building by police after threatening to "make a stink" that was going to make headlines. On his way out, he handed a wooden cross to then news director Dan Dennison and said, "You'll need this."
He later filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a civil lawsuit against the station, accusing staff of making racist comments. His complaint was deemed unfounded and the civil suit was dismissed, Marks said.
In postings on Twitter after the shooting, Flanagan described workplace conflicts with both of his victims. He said Parker, who worked with Flanagan while still an intern, had made racist comments and was hired even though he filed a complaint about the incident with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ward had reported him to human resources, he said.
According to court documents from the civil suit, Ward had filmed Flanagan's departure from WDBJ and Flanagan insulted him and flipped off the camera.
In a letter to the judge, Flanagan wrote of his firing, "How heartless can you be? My entire life was disrupted after moving clear across the country for a job only to have my dream turn into a nightmare. ... Your Honour, I am not the monster here."
Marks said on Thursday the station did not tolerate "any attitude of illegal discrimination, harassment or anything that makes the workplace other than a safe place to work" and had fired employees in the past for violating that standard and would not hesitate to do so again.
"I am absolutely certain that nothing like that happened in this case and that it was in the imagination and perhaps in the preconception and preplanned attitudes of the fellow in this case," he said.
He would not say whether or not the station ended up making a settlement with Flanagan in his civil suit, as has been reported by some media.
Small reminders all around
Marks said on Thursday that in the 2½ years since his firing, WDBJ staff saw Flanagan in public places but had no confrontations with him. He did not attempt to follow any WDBJ employees or enter the station's offices.
"We are still at a loss to figure out what happened to him in those 2½ years," he said. "But most of our time, we are spending focused on the results of his actions yesterday — the loss of Adam and Alison — and our bond with the community."
News director Kelly Zuber said the station has decided not to send out any live teams for the time being out of "an abundance of caution," and will decide in consultation with its staff when to resume doing so. Zuber said police have offered to provide security on live shoots.
She and Marks said WDBJ staff have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the community and from journalists around the world.
But Zuber said the news team is struggling with its grief and seeing small reminders of Ward and Parker all around the newsroom. One employee "lost it" when he saw Ward's car in the parking lot with his clothes still inside. Another choked up on air after seeing a discarded wrapper from the candy that Ward was always eating around the office.
"They cry, they hug and then they get the job done, and that's all I can ask of them right now," Zuber said.
She said Ward's fiancée, Melissa Ott, herself a producer at the station who was in the control room when the shooting happened, was in "tremendous grief" over his death. "It will be a long recovery for her," Zuber said.
Victims likely had little warning
When asked whether Parker and Ward would have noticed Flanagan, who stood behind Ward for several seconds before he began shooting, Zuber said they likely had little warning.
"We're all trained to stand in front of the camera, hold camera presence and ignore people who come around us," she said. "Certainly from the video that aired on our morning show, we saw Adam go down, and then we heard a scream, so there is probably some indication that at the very last moment Alison may have recognized what was going on. Adam probably did not since his back was turned to the shooter.
"I think they had very little notice, and I think they probably were not even aware."
In a 56-second video clip posted to Twitter on Wednesday under the handle @bryce_williams7, Flanagan can be seen quietly approaching Parker and Ward, gun in hand, as they conduct an interview. 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
Around 40,000 viewers had tuned in to the morning broadcast, 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. WDBJ said later that it was that image that helped them assist police in identifying the gunman.
Zuber said Thursday it was unclear how Flanagan knew where Parker and Ward would be so early in the morning but that someone who was in Roanoke and started watching the newscast at 5 a.m. would have had enough time to make it to Smith Mountain Lake where they were broadcasting from before the end of the broadcast. The shooting took place around 5:45 a.m. ET.
Flanagan's conflicts with staff at WDBJ echoed similar incidents at some of the other television stations at which he worked. In 2000, he settled a lawsuit with a Florida station in which he accused co-workers and supervisor of racism.
Shooter's family issues statement
In a 24-page fax that Flanagan reportedly sent to ABC News he described being "berated" and bullied by co-workers at WDBJ.
He 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, S.C., 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!!!!"
Flanagan's family released a statement Thursday expressing condolences for the victims' families and asking for privacy: "Words cannot express the hurt that we feel," it read in part.
With files from The Associated Press