Two Journalists’ Lives Were Taken on Air By Ex-Reporter

On the morning of August 26, 2015, news reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward were shot to death while conducting a live interview in Smith Mountain Lake, Moneta. The perpetrator? A former reporter named Vester Lee Flanagan II who had been fired two years earlier for disruptive conduct.

Alison Parker / Alison Parker, Vicki Gardner / Vester Lee Flanagan / Smith Mountain Lake.
Source: WDBJ News

The killings occurred at 6:46 a.m. just as Parker, aged 24, held the microphone and interviewed Vicki Gardner, the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber executive director. Both women smiled at the camera, which was operated by 27-year-old Ward when Flanagan barged into the scene and went wild.

Eight Gunshots, Followed by a Scream

Video of the shooting floated around the internet and showed Parker and Vicki Gardner in conversation when about eight gunshots were heard, followed by terrorized screams. Adam Ward’s camera fell to the ground and briefly captured the image of the gunman holding a 9mm pistol.

A still from Parker and Vicki during the interview.
Alison Parker, Vicki Gardner. Source: CNN News

Virginia’s local news, WDBJ, then rapidly switched back to news anchor Kimberly McBroom at the station’s studio, who appeared utterly confused by what had just occurred. Kimberly later shared that she thought the ominous noises were just shots being fired in the background.

The Aftermath

Alison Parker and Adam Ward died at the scene. According to a state medical examiner’s office report, Parker died from multiple gunshot wounds to her chest and head, while Ward died of fatal shots to his torso and head.

A picture of Alison Parker and Adam Ward at work.
Alison Parker, Adam Ward. Source: Facebook

Vicki Gardner also suffered severe blows but survived after being treated at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. At the moment of the shooting, she curled into a fetal position and tried to play dead. Flanagan fired several shots to her back.

A Total of Fifteen Shots Were Fired

In total, Flanagan fired fifteen deadly shots and fled the scene. The crew back in the WDBJ newsroom went over the video of the incident and recognized Flanagan as the killer. They immediately called general manager Jeffrey Marks, who passed the information over to the Franklin County sheriff.

A TV news truck sits in a parking lot near the scene.
Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images

At about 8:20 a.m., ABC News’ office received a fax from Flanagan, who phoned them a little after 10:00 a.m. confessing his actions. Authorities tracked his phone to locate him, and once they succeeded, the manhunting took off.

He Shot Himself During the Car Chase

Flanagan ditched his car (a Ford Mustang) at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and rented a Chevrolet Sonic. He sped north on I-81, then turned east on I-66. His rented car was identified at 11:20 a.m. by an automated license plate reader.

An image of Flanagan.
Vester Lee Flanagan. Source: YouTube

Authorities tried to stop him multiple times, but he kept speeding away. Finally, his rental car veered off the side of the road and into an embankment. After a grueling five-hour search, Flanagan was found in his vehicle with self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

He Was Airlifted to the Hospital

Flanagan was airlifted to a hospital in Falls Church, where they declared him dead at 1:26 p.m. While some people might say he certainly deserved to go the way he went, it’s upsetting that the victims’ families couldn’t confront the person who killed their loved ones.

A still from Flanagan working as a news reporter.
Vester Lee Flanagan. Source: YouTube

According to his former co-workers, Flanagan was a troubled man who had been “behaving oddly” for several years before the incident. He was constantly in conflict with his peers, many of whom confessed to “feeling uncomfortable and threatened” while working with him.

Who Was Vester Lee Flanagan II?

Vester Lee Flanagan II was born in the fall of 1973 in Oakland, California. He grew up in a religious setting as his family was Jehovah’s Witnesses. Flanagan’s upbringing was seemingly normal. For the first few years of adulthood, he was on the “regular path” many follow.

A portrait of Flanagan at home.
Source: Facebook

He graduated from high school and attended San Francisco State University, earning a degree in radio and television. He was an intern at CBS’s KPIX-TV in San Francisco and eventually worked there as an assistant producer and weekend news writer.

His Co-Workers Teased His Sexuality

Between March 1999 and March 2000, Flanagan worked as a reporter for NBC’s WTWC-TV in Tallahassee, Florida, where he ran into some uncomfortable behavior coming from his peers. He told the news director at the time, Don Shafer, that his co-workers were bullying him.

A photo of Flanagan having a sad expression on his face.
Source: YouTube

Flanagan complained that they kept commenting about his sexual orientation. Shafer didn’t do much about it, so Flanagan’s anger kept boiling inside him until it got to the point where he let out his anger on random staff workers.

He Verbally Abused His Peers

Sports reporter Dave Leval, who worked for WTWC, told The Daily Mail that Flanagan verbally abused two of his female staff workers at the station after they criticized his reporting and pointed out several mistakes he had made.

The WDBJ community cope after the reporter is killed.
Source: ABC News

Furthermore, several photographers at the station desperately tried to get out of working with him on stories because of his “diva-like” behavior. It seems like no one in the station wanted to work with him. The isolation likely added to his already bubbling anger.

He Lost His Job Due to “Odd Behavior”

In March 2000, Flanagan was fired due to “odd behavior.” Enraged by the decision, he filed a lawsuit against the television station, alleging that he was let off by racial discrimination. As an African American, he felt that he was being targeted due to his color.

A picture of Flanagan.
Source: Facebook

The civil lawsuit was settled in January of 2001 under “unspecified terms.” Afterward, Flanagan found work at WNCT-TV in Greenville, North Carolina, where he worked from 2002 – 2004. The reporter also found some additional work at KMID in Midland, Texas.

Who Was Alison Bailey Parker?

Alison Bailey Parker (born in 1991) grew up in Martinsville, Virginia, where she attended the Patrick & Henry Community College and James Madison University. The ambitious young journalist began her journey by interning at WDBJ in 2012.

An image of Alison Bailey Parker at work.
Alison Parker. Source: CNN News

She found work in 2012 as a general assignment news anchor at WCTI-TV (ABC affiliate) in New Born, North Carolina. Alison spent two years there until WDBJ hired her in 2014 as a correspondent for the show Mornin’.

“She Was the Most Radiant Woman I Ever Met”

It’s not rare that when a person dies, what follows is a shower of compliments and praises by their loved ones. But in the case of Alison Parker, the touching words from her family and friends were genuinely justified. The young woman was a ray of sunshine.

A picture of Alison Parker during a party.
Source: Facebook

Alison was a kind soul, and according to her former partner Chris Hurst, she was “the most radiant woman” he had ever met. Hurst and Parker had just moved in together, and her death left him absolutely “numb.”

“Is This Real?”

Alison’s father, Andy Parker, broke down in tears upon hearing the news. “Is this real? I am crying my eyes out,” he told the media. When approached by reporters, Andy was quoted saying:

“My grief is unbearable. Is this real? Am I going to wake up?”

A photo of Alison Parker and her father.
Alison Parker, Andy Parker. Source: Facebook

Seeing your daughter gunned down on live television is enough to make any parent go mad. Andy told The Washington Post: “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.”

It Was Her Last Day at the Station

Station Manager Jeffrey A. Marks told CNN that they were planning on celebrating in her honor a little before she died.

“It was her last day. She was moving on to a station in Charlotte,” Jeffrey explained. Adam Ward was reportedly planning to move there as well.

Alison takes a picture with her co-workers at work.
Source: CNN News

A news reporter at the local ABC station, Kody Leibowitz, told interviewers that he met Parker and Ward several times while covering stories in the field.

“They were always friendly, very friendly people,” Kody told The Daily Beast.

Who Was Adam Laing Ward?

Adam Laing Ward (born in 1988) grew up in Salem, Virginia, and attended Virginia Tech, where he graduated with a degree in communications and media studies in 2011. Adam had worked at WDBJ since the summer of 2011 as a videographer and an occasional sports reporter.

A photo of Adam Ward holding his video camera.
Adam Ward. Source: YouTube

Adam Ward had his whole life ahead of him at the time of the shooting. He was engaged to a producer at the television station, and the two were planning on moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, to start a new life there.

He Was a Fine Photojournalist

WDBJ’s General Manager Jeffrey Marks told USA Today: “[Mark] was the kind of guy who was on his way home and heard about something breaking; he would just turn around and go do it.” Adam’s other co-workers at the station agreed and dubbed him “a fine photojournalist.”

A photo of Adam.
Source: Facebook

His former peers told USA Today that he was a dedicated journalist who had been with the station since 2011. He had started in the production department, moved on to become a camera operator in the studio, and later achieved his goal of becoming a cameraman in the field.

Who Was Vicki Gardner?

The third victim in this tragic story is Vicki Gardner, who had been working as the executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce at the time of the shooting. Thankfully, Gardner survived the attack.

A picture of Vicki Gardner.
Vicki Gardner. Source: Facebook

She was rushed to the hospital, where she underwent surgery. Her right kidney and part of her colon were removed, and she had to stay in the hospital for a week or so until she was released on September 8.

“It Was Very Chaotic”

At the moment of the shooting, as Vester Flanagan mercilessly opened fire, Vicki Gardner dropped to the ground. “I just saw movement and then gunfire. Lots and lots of gunfire,” Gardner told Fox News, “From that point, it was very chaotic.”

A still of Vicki Gardner during an interview.
Vicki Gardner. Source: CNN News

Gardner believed she was the next target on his killing spree list. “I realized it was quiet, and everybody was down. And I didn’t know where [Flanagan] was,” she recalled, “I felt as though the next shot — I knew — the next shot he was just going to shoot me in the head because that was what he was doing.”

Instinct Saved Her Life

Vicki Gardner’s survival instincts kicked in immediately. She dropped to the ground, curled herself into a fetal position, and played dead. As Flanagan moved about, Gardner said he was very quiet and didn’t say a word.

A photo of Vicki Gardner in a hospital bed.
Vicki Gardner. Source: YouTube

Then, when he spotted her, he shot her in the back to make sure he killed her. Luckily, Gardner got out of it alive but had she continued to stand, “I would not be here talking to you,” she told reporters of Fox News.

Why Save Me and Take Them?

Gardner said she was unbelievably grateful for having survived such an attack and was “happy to be here,” alive and well. Still, thoughts of Adam and Alison continue to haunt her now and then. “Why save me and take them?” she questions.

An image of Alison and Adam at work.
Source: YouTube

Gardner believes there is a purpose for her survival and says she will do her best to fulfill it.

Chris Durst, Parker’s bereaved boyfriend, added to her speech and told reporters that despite all the confusion, he knows what “we all must do – to profess love, not hate.”

Flanagan Lashed Out at Everyone

Flanagan was fired two years before the shooting. According to a former colleague, Flanagan “lashed out at newsroom staffers upon hearing the news of his dismissal,” resulting in a few of them being put in a separate room. At the same time, authorities escorted him out of the building.

A photo of Flanagan.
Source: Facebook

As WDBJ’s security officers dragged him out of the perimeter, Flanagan reportedly threw a wooden cross at one of the station’s workers, saying, “You need this.” He also named Parker as one of the staff workers who discriminated against him due to his color.

A Terrifying Suicide Note

Following the incident at WDBJ, Flanagan wrote a suicide note stating that he was so upset about his firing that he killed both of his cats out of rage.

An aerial shot of Flanagan’s car.
Source: CNN News

Incredibly, Flanagan was able to find work again at a different place.

He landed a job at one of UnitedHealth Group’s call centers. There, too, he had an ugly confrontation with a female staff worker. She pointed out how quiet he was, and apparently, her little criticism was too much for him to handle. He responded aggressively and yelled at her to never speak to him again.

An Arrogant and Rude Person

Flanagan ran into trouble not only with his co-workers but with his neighbors as well. One of them, who lived in his apartment complex, told the news that he was “an arrogant person who acted rudely towards people around him.”

An aerial general view of Flanagan’s car and an ambulance.
Source: CNN News

Whenever he would find himself in a clash with one of his neighbors, Flanagan would reportedly throw cat feces at their home. Clearly, the man was distraught, and the signs were all there. He was just waiting to explode.

Did Parker Really Make a Racist Remark?

Flanagan had accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but both were suspended after his name appeared as a suspect in the shooting. In his social media accounts, he repeatedly claimed that he was suffering from racial discrimination by WDBJ.

A photo of Parker and Ward at the office.
Source: YouTube

He specifically named Parker and Ward as the two people who were really after him. He wrote that Alison Parker had made a racist remark during her internship at WDBJ. After working with him on a story, he also stated that Ward had filed a complaint against him to the station’s HR department.

He Uploaded the Video to His Social Media Accounts

At 11:14 a.m. on the day of the killing, Flanagan uploaded a 1-minute phone camera video to his Twitter and Facebook accounts a short while before they were suspended. The video was shot from a first-person perspective of the tragic incident.

A still from the video.
Source: Facebook

Flanagan’s video shows him walking up to the interview location and pulling out a handgun without Parker, Ward, or Gardner noticing. Gardner later stated that she had been blinded by the lighting and couldn’t spot a thing.

He Cursed and Pointed It Right at Her Face

As Flanagan approached Parker, he muttered “b*tch” and pointed the gun right at her, lowering it a bit and then raising it again and shooting directly at her. Alison flinched and let out a scream before she attempted to escape.

A portrait of Parker.
Source: Facebook

Ward’s camera quickly dropped to the floor before Flanagan grabbed it and shut it off. In those few seconds, Ward’s camera managed to get a hold of Flanagan’s angry face. Everything happened incredibly fast, and before long, the scene went from a typical day on the job to a gory blood bath.

He Was a Human Powder Keg Just Waiting to Explode

A little after the shooting, Flanagan faxed ABC news a “Suicide Note for Friend & Family,” in which he went into detail about what he insisted was racial discrimination and even sexual harassment committed by white women and Black men in his workplace.

Stills from Flanagan getting closer to Parker.
Source: YouTube

Flanagan believed he was targeted for being a Black gay man. He felt like the world was after him and claimed that his co-workers repeatedly provoked him. He wrote that his anger had been “building steadily” and that he was a “human powder keg…just waiting to go BOOM.”

He Praised the Columbine Shooters

According to a spokesman for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, Flanagan was “very closely identified” with “individuals who committed domestic acts of violence.” Such killers included Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters who gunned down their school in 1999.

Relatives and friends cry after a candlelight vigil for Alison Parker.
Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images

Another mass murderer Flanagan admired was Seung-Hui Cho, the man responsible for the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. In conclusion, in his suicide note, Flanagan said, “Yeah, I’m all f*cked up in the head.”

Several Disguises Were Found in His Car

Flanagan shot himself dead in his car. And when police arrived, they found him lifeless and limp. They searched his vehicle to try and find some clues about this troubled man. They found various items in his car, including a cell phone and a pile of letters.

A CNN informer reports from the crime scene.
Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images

Other items found in his car include a suitcase with three license plates and several wigs and clothes, hinting that he was likely planning on disguising himself to fool the police and flee the country.

The Public Was Heartbroken

President Barack Obama was heartbroken over the killings. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe posted on Twitter that he was devastated about the shooting, and he reasserted his claims of support for gun control.

A mother and a daughter bring flowers to the reporters’ memorial.
Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images

McAuliffe later called for stricter gun laws and blamed the Virginia General Assembly for not passing a package of gun control measures proposed earlier that year in January. His comments drew backlash from Republicans who blamed him for politicizing the tragic event.

Alison’s Dad Became an Advocate on the Issue of Gun Violence Prevention

Alison’s father, Andy Parker, swore to fight against gun violence and said that he would speak with politicians to ensure that the necessary steps were being taken to ensure that an incident like that wouldn’t happen again.

A photo of Andy Parker speaking during a rally on Capitol Hill.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As for Alison’s former partner, Chris Hurst, the tragic incident pushed him to run for a seat in the House of Delegates, with one main focus on his mind – to pass gun control legislation.

The Season Finale of Mr. Robot Was Delayed Following the Incident

Right after the shooting, several media productions were either postponed or pulled from television outlets. USA Network delayed the first-season finale of their hit series Mr. Robot because the episode included a violent scene that was somewhat like the actual incident.

Carly Chaikin discusses the final season of Mr. Robot during an interview.
Carly Chaikin. Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

IFC also had to change their plans following the shooting. They delayed an airing of their satirical series “Documentary Now!” because the episode centered around two reporters who were killed on camera while tracking down a drug cartel leader from Mexico.

Facebook and Twitter Were Criticized

Users of both social media outlets criticized the websites for their auto-play option, which allowed viewers to see graphic images of the killing without any prior warning. In addition, other media outlets like The New York Post and The Daily Mirror were also attacked for publishing stills of Flanagan’s phone on their front pages.

A photo of Alison and Adam during a news report.
Source: YouTube

However, not everyone rushed to parade Flanagan’s killings. ABC World News Tonight refused to show Flanagan’s video. NBC Nightly News broadcasted just a single still frame, and CBS Evening Show aired a 25-segment of the video.

The Footage Was Incredibly Triggering

Christine Courtois, chairwoman of the American Psychological Association’s PTSD guidelines development panel, told the news that anyone watching Flanagan’s video was at risk of becoming incredibly upset to the point of developing an acute stress disorder.

A still from Alison and Vicki's conversation before the shooting.
Source: CNN News

Journalist Catherine Bennett (of The Guardian) said that the media was “helping Flanagan achieve his vanity script by using his footage.” But other reporters, like LA Times’ Mary McNamara, said that watching the footage was crucial, not for entertainment’s purposes, but to “better understand how brutal the murders were.”

The Lawsuit Against WDBJ

In 2019, survivor Vicki Gardner filed a $6 million civil lawsuit in damages against WDBJ for its “negligence in hiring Vester Lee Flanagan II, who wounded her and killed journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward then himself.”

Vicki speaks during an interview.
Source: CNN News

The suit claimed: “Had WDBJ taken action sooner, they could have avoided the murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, as well as the serious injuries that Vicki suffered, and the carnage of August 26, 2015, could have been avoided.” In the summer of 2020, a Franklin County Circuit Court dismissed the case.

The Alison Bailey Parker Memorial Scholarship

Following the killings, Patrick & Henry Community College and the PHCC Foundation founded the Alison Bailey Parker Memorial Scholarship in honor of Alison Parker, who graduated in 2009.

A general view of the memorial service held for slain journalists.
Photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis/Getty Images

The scholarship is given annually to a student studying in a Media Design and Production program. In 2017, JMU’s Media Arts & Design School dedicated a room in Harrison Hall to Alison, naming it the Alison B. Parker studio.