A pair of television journalists at a CBS affiliate in Virginia were shot and killed during a live broadcast Wednesday morning, and authorities said the shooter, a disgruntled former employee at the station, shot himself after crashing his car on an interstate highway.
The suspected gunman, identified as Vester Flanagan, a 41-year-old former WDBJ-TV reporter who went by the name Bryce Williams on air, was taken into custody with "life-threatening injuries," police said. He later died.
The victims, WDBJ reporter Alison Parker, 24, and Adam Ward, her 27-year-old cameraman, died shortly after the shooting, which occurred at approximately 6:45 a.m. at Bridgewater Plaza in Moneta, Va., near Smith Mountain Lake.
The gunman opened fire Wednesday morning as Parker was interviewing Vicki Gardner, the head of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, live on the air. Gardner was shot in the back and taken to a hospital for surgery. She is listed in stable condition.
Warning: The video below contains graphic footage.
The family of the alleged shooter sent a note of condolence via email to the WDBJ-TV news team late Wednesday afternoon to express sorrow for the victims — and to make a plea for privacy.
"It is with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we express our deepest condolenses [sic] to the families of Alison Parker and Adam Ward," the note read. "We are also praying for the recovery of Vicki Gardner. Our thoughts and prayers at this time are with the victims' families and the WBDJ7 NEWS family. Words cannot express the hurt that we feel for the victtims [sic]. Our family is asking that the media respect our privacy. Sincerely, The Family of Vester Flanagan."
A chilling first-person video posted to a Twitter account belonging to Flanagan — @bryce_williams7 — showed what appeared to be him holding a gun behind Parker and Ward, then firing three shots at Parker as she tried to flee.
"I filmed the shooting," Williams tweeted after alleging that Parker had made "racist comments" about him.
The Twitter account has since been suspended, as was a Facebook account belonging to someone with that name.
A still image taken from the on-air video shows the image of a man holding what appears to be a handgun.
— WDBJ7 (@WDBJ7) August 26, 2015
Earlier, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told a local radio station that police were pursuing the suspect and that his apprehension was imminent. McAuliffe said the suspected shooter had been identified and was believed to a "disgruntled employee" at the station.
Heartbroken over senseless murders today in Smith Mountain Lake. State Police on scene working w/ local law agencies to capture suspect.
— Terry McAuliffe (@GovernorVA) August 26, 2015
At approximately 11 a.m., state police spotted Flanagan's vehicle, a 2009 Ford Mustang, at a regional airport. Flanagan's rental car, a Chevrolet Sonic, was then picked up by a license plate reader, police said.
Shortly before 11:30 a.m., a Virginia state trooper spotted the suspect's vehicle eastbound on Interstate 66.
"He refused to stop and sped away from the trooper. Minutes later, the suspect vehicle ran off the road and crashed," the state police said in a statement. "The troopers approached the vehicle and found the male driver suffering from a gunshot wound."
Flanagan was airlifted to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at approximately 1:30 p.m.
At a news conference, Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton said investigators had yet to establish a motive and were reviewing Flanagan's social media postings. Fisher said it was unclear if the suspect had posted the videos of the shooting himself.
According to public records, Flanagan, who lived in Roanoke, had no known criminal history. He filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against WTWC-TV in Tallahassee, Fla., after the station fired him in December 1999. In the suit, Flanagan said he was the victim of racial discrimination and retaliation during his nine months on the job. The station denied the allegations, saying Flanagan was dismissed for poor performance and office misbehavior. The case was settled out of court a year later.
ABC News said that it received a 23-page fax on Wednesday morning from someone claiming to be Williams.
In it, Williams writes that he was motivated, in part, to avenge the deaths of nine black churchgoers in Charleston in June.
“Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15," he wrote. “What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them." It's unclear which initials he is referring to. The news division said it turned the document over to the authorities.
“The church shooting was the tipping point ... but my anger has been building steadily," he continued. "I’ve been a human powder keg for a while ... just waiting to go BOOM!!!!”
Williams also expressed his admiration for Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in 2007.
"That’s my boy right there," Williams writes of Cho. "He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got ... just sayin.'"
Shortly after 10 a.m., ABC said a man who identified himself as Williams called the network, saying he had shot two people and that police were after him. He then hung up.
WDBJ-TV president and general manager Jeff Marks said Flanagan was fired from the station two years ago, and that police were called to escort him from the building.
“Vester was an unhappy man,” Marks said during the station’s noon newscast. “He had a reputation for being difficult to work with.”
Flanagan’s former employer in Tallahassee described a similar environment 16 years ago. In response to Flanagan’s discrimination lawsuit, WTWC said he was actually fired for using profanity at work, misbehaving around co-workers and refusing to follow directions. Among other allegations, Flanagan claimed a producer at the station called him a “monkey” and that a black co-worker was told to “stop talking ebonics.”
Marks confirmed the deaths of the journalists in an on-air update shortly after 9 a.m.
— WDBJ7 (@WDBJ7) August 26, 2015
"It is my very, very sad duty to report ... that Adam and Alison died this morning," he told viewers. "I cannot tell you how much they were loved, Alison and Adam. Our hearts are broken."
According to WDBJ-TV, both Ward and Parker lived in Roanoke. Ward graduated from Virginia Tech; Parker, who grew up in Martinsville, Va., was a recent graduate of James Madison University.
Parker had just moved in with her boyfriend of nearly nine months, fellow WDBJ anchor Chris Hurst, who said they planned on getting married.
— Chris Hurst (@chrishurstwdbj) August 26, 2015
“She was the most radiant woman I ever met. And for some reason she loved me back. She loved her family, her parents and her brother,” Hurst wrote in a series of tweets. “I am comforted by everyone at @WDBJ7. We are a family. She worked with Adam every day. They were a team. I am heartbroken for his fiancee.”
“My grief is unbearable,” Andy Parker, Alison's Parker's father, told the Washington Post. “Is this real? Am I going to wake up? I am crying my eyes out. I don’t know if there’s anybody in this world or another father who could be more proud of their daughter.”
He compared the gunman's first-person video of the shootings to the horrific hostage videos distributed online by Islamic State militants.
“It’s like showing those beheadings,” Andy Parker said. “I am not going to watch it. I can’t watch it. I can’t watch any news. All it would do is rip out my heart further than it already it is.”
Ward's fiancée, Melissa Ott, worked as a morning producer at the station. According to Marks, Ott was in the control room at the time of the incident and saw the shooting happen live.
It was Ott's last day at WDBJ. She had taken a job in Charlotte, and Ward was going to follow her.
— Kimberly McBroom (@KimberlyWDBJ) August 26, 2015
"This was going to be a celebratory day," Marks said.
He added: "Everybody's hugging. Everybody's crying. And then everybody's doing their work as journalists."
— CBSN (@CBSNLive) August 26, 2015
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama is disappointed and frustrated that people who oppose common-sense steps to reduce gun violence have great sway over Congress.
“I think the president has also been disappointed that our political system has not responded in the way that he would like,” Earnest told reporters at the daily press briefing. “There are clear majorities in both the Democratic and Republican parties — according to many polls — for these policies. There are even some polls that indicate that there are clear majorities of gun owners that support some of these common-sense steps. And yet we haven’t seen Congress take this action.”
Campaigning in Iowa, an emotional Hillary Clinton also called for stricter gun laws in the wake of Wednesday's tragedy.
"We have got to do something about gun violence in America," the Democratic frontrunner said. "There is so much evidence that if guns weren't readily available, if we had universal background checks ... that maybe we could prevent this kind of carnage."
Americans for Responsible Solutions — the gun reform group co-founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — released a statement condemning the shooting:
We are horrified to learn that two young journalists were murdered this morning doing the jobs they loved. As they worked on a beautiful summer morning, they were murdered by an armed assailant. While we don’t yet know all the details of what happened this morning, we know that an attack like this on journalists is an affront to the values we all share.”
Our country has a gun violence problem, and shootings like these are far too common in our country. Many times, they happen behind close doors, in homes and schools and movie theaters. But this time, the horror unfolded live and on air, for all to see. Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose loved ones were taken from them this morning, with their colleagues at WDBJ7 in Roanoke, and with all Virginians as they mourn this shocking loss.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, issued a similar statement:
The gun lobby’s ongoing response to a long, cruel summer of senseless, preventable gun violence is to say Americans ought to be armed and at the ready at every moment. But, as we saw in the horrifying footage from this morning’s shooting, that’s an insane proposition. Was Adam supposed to hold a gun in one hand, and operate his camera with the other? Should Alison have carried both a microphone and a firearm? Moms will not be silent and allow the gun lobby's rhetoric and propaganda to take hold in this country. Americans are being shot and killed in places we should be able go every day without fear: work, school, church and the movies. Our leaders can no longer ignore the dire need for common-sense public safety measures that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. It’s time to ask them: "Do you stand with Americans or do you stand with the gun lobby?"
— With Michael Walsh and Jason Sickles contributing reporting