Like so much of his life, the name Vester Lee Flanagan II used as a broadcast reporter during his 11 months at WDBJ television in Roanoke was a phony. He called himself Bryce Williams and there was, in the words of one former WDBJ reporter “something not right with him.”
He fought with cameramen, tried to tell others how to do their jobs and faced disciplinary actions from the beginning of his troubled time at the station in 2012.
Station officials fired him and brought in police to escort him from the premises. Employees at the station were told to call 911 if he ever came back.
Flanagan’s anger grew. He wrote a 23-page manifesto chronicling what he claimed were actions of harassment and discrimination. He sued the station but the lawsuit went away in a dismissal.
Then early on Wednesday morning, at Bridgewater Plaza at Smith Mountain Lake, we walked up behind Channel 7 reporter Alison Parker and cameraman and Adam Ward and gunned them down as they interviewed chamber of commerce officer Vicki Gardner.
Parker and Ward died at the scene. Gardner survived and at Roanoke Memorial Hospital in serious but stable condition.
Flanagan fled the scene but stopped long enough to send videos of his actions to his Twitter and Facebook accounts. Thousands saw the horrifying videos before both services took them down but the videos were widely distributed and continued to play throughout the day,
Flannagan later killed himself as Virginia State Troopers closed in on him on Interstate 66 in Facquier County, more than 100 miles away from Bridgewater Plaza.
The horrifying videos continued to circulate throughout social media sites, email and other parts of the Internet — a sad irony for the senseless murder of two young and promising broadcast journalists.
Those who wanted to use the tragedy for political gain trumpeted the need for more gun control or the need for more guns in the hands of more ordinary people. Both sides sought to use the deaths for their agendas and the festering rise of social media gave them the perfect platform for exploitation.
In the unrestrained cesspool of Facebook and Twitter, the propaganda pandering of instant and reactionary pundits swooped in like locusts in a feeding frenzy.
It was a sad display of the so-called “new media” at work and it desecrated, I believe, the memories of two young journalists who died doing what they loved.
They deserved better.