From his strict upbringing to his spotty work history, a detailed portrait of the alleged gunman emerges
To the people of Roanoke, he was known as Bryce Williams, a general assignment reporter at WDBJ who covered the typical local news stories: house fires, school board meetings and local crimes. He had worked in the market for about a year, leaving the station in 2013.
But viewers saw a different side of the man known as Williams on Wednesday morning, when he allegedly opened fire on his former colleagues during a live TV shot, killing journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward and injuring the woman they were interviewing. Hours later, Williams fatally shot himself in an apparent suicide as authorities caught up to him.
The public was stunned, but those who knew the shooter were less shocked. Williams, whose real name was Vester Lee Flanagan II, had a tumultuous tenure at the station marked by angry confrontations.
“Vester was an unhappy man,” the station’s general manager, Jeff Marks, said on-air. “We employed him as a reporter and he had some talent in that respect and some experience. He quickly gathered a reputation of someone who was difficult to work with. He was sort of looking out to people to say things he could take offense to. Eventually, after many incidents of his anger, we dismissed him. He did not take that well. We had to call police to escort him from the building.
“He then filed an action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which he made all sorts of claims about the members of the staff making racial comments,” Marks continued. “None of them could be corroborated by anyone. We think they were fabricated.”
Born in 1973 in Oakland, California, to Vester and Betty Flanagan, he was raised as a strict Jehovah’s Witness. Life seemed stable. His mother was a teacher for 37 years. He had two sisters, Vicki and Valerie. “His family was close,” says childhood friend Shaun Barton. “Both of his parents came from pretty big families, so he had a lot of cousins, too. The family would have a lot of get-togethers, and I always got the feeling that he liked that.”
When his mother died in 2008, Flanagan took the loss hard. “That’s when we fell out of touch,” says Barton. “He just withdrew to himself and cut off all contact with anyone from his past. You could tell he was in a lot of pain.”
Professionally, Flanagan’s career started off with promise but soon dissolved into a trail of broken bridges. He attended San Francisco State University, graduating in 1995 with a degree in radio and television. According to his now-deleted LinkedIn page, he interned at several stations before getting his first job as a general assignment reporter at KMID TV in Odessa, Texas.
But the job didn’t work out, lasting for only a few months. Flanagan was unemployed from June 1995 until February 1997, working odd jobs to make ends meet.
“I saw him a lot during that time,” remembers Barton. “He wouldn’t tell me what happened, but he said it was bad. And you know, he wasn’t happy. You could tell. When Vester wasn’t happy, everything just seemed very dark with him. I know that he did a lot of jobs during that time that he hated doing, but it was what he had to do.”
He landed two more television jobs – one in Savannah, Georgia, and another in Tallahassee, Florida. Both of those jobs ended badly; he even sued the Tallahassee station for racial discrimination, alleging that a producer had called him a “monkey,” Newsweek reports.
During his time off from TV stations, Flanagan worked as a customer service rep – a job he hated. “He liked to be on television,” says Barton. “That was his thing. He wanted to be famous.”
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