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WDBJ Shooter Had History of Violent Outbursts

Research has shown anger issues to be a bigger driver of gun violence than serious mental illness, but manifesto shows that Virginia killer's true motives may be hard to determine.

A reporter fired from a local television news station fatally shot two of his former colleagues on live television in Moneta, Virginia, Wednesday morning. The Virginia State Police have identified the suspect as Vester Flanagan, 41, known professionally as Bryce Williams. Based on social media posts that have since been taken down, Flanagan appears to have filmed the shooting; the footage was posted to now-deleted Facebook and Twitter accounts that were updated while Flanagan was on the run from police. When law enforcement confronted Flanagan on Interstate 66 in Southwest Virginia, the suspect shot himself and later died of his injuries.

One of the victims, WDBJ reporter Alison Parker, 24, was interviewing Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, at Bridgewater Plaza when the attack took place. Footage taken from the perpetrator’s perspective shows the shooter raising a gun — identified by some Internet commentators as a Glock — at Parker’s midsection and opening fire. She can be heard screaming while WDBJ’s live feed goes sideways as the second victim, cameraman Adam Ward, 27, topples over. Gardner was shot in the back and wounded.

A Twitter feed opened under the name Bryce Williams two weeks before today’s shooting included posts stating that Flanagan had filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against Parker, whom the poster alleges “made racist comments.” A tweet about Ward claims: “Adam went to HR on me after working with me one time!!!” Another post contains a photo of a news clipping detailing a discrimination lawsuit reportedly filed against WTWC in Tallahassee, Florida. (The court documents can be viewed here.) Also tweeted from the account were video reels of Williams’s reporting, including a segment he filmed at a gun range.

About two hours after the shooting, ABC News received a 23-page fax from someone claiming to be Bryce Williams, in which the writer expresses admiration for the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters and cites a rambling list of motivations ranging from revenge for this summer’s killings at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, to sexual harassment. “I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM!!!!” the letter reads. 

Flanagan was fired from WDBJ in February 2013. General Manager Jeffrey Marks confirmed to the New York Times that Flanagan had filed an EEOC complaint against the station, but said that it was dismissed. The station believes the racist comments in question were “fabricated.” Marks said Flanagan was easily provoked, and his angry outbursts led to his dismissal. Police had to escort him from the building, Marks told the Times. A former coworker of Flanagan’s in Florida has alleged that he was “fired for bizarre behavior and threatening employees.”

An initial check of legal records reveals no criminal history that would have prohibited Flanagan from buying or possessing a gun. A pattern of mental illness would not have disqualified him from purchasing a firearm through a licensed dealer unless he had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution by a judge or “adjudicated as a mental defective.”

In media interviews, other former colleagues at news stations around the country have also pointed to Flanagan’s inability to contain his anger, which research has shown to be a more significant driver of gun violence than major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Other studies have explored the role of firearms in workplace violence, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics finding that shootings accounted for 80 percent of workplace homicides between 2005 and 2009.

While reporters searched for additional details on Flanagan’s motives and investigators traced the gun used in his rampage, flowers piled up outside WDBJ’s studio. Inside, the staff of WDBJ was preparing for their noon broadcast.

“You can hear people behind us in the newsroom crying. It’s just really hard to even comprehend,” Jean Jadhon, one of the station’s anchors, said on air.

[Photo: Vester Flanagan’s newsreel]