Vester Flanagan, the gunman who killed two journalists in Virginia, was told by his bosses to seek medical help after colleagues at the television station where he worked with his victims repeatedly complained about him, according to memos obtained by the Guardian.
Several flare-ups were detailed in internal messages from Dan Dennison, then the news director of WDBJ7, that were sent to Flanagan and copied to senior colleagues. Flanagan on Wednesday morning shot dead reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward .
Flanagan, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound later on Wednesday , was reprimanded for “lashing out” at a colleague and for his “harsh language” and “aggressive body language” while working as a reporter.
He was told to contact employee assistance professionals at the company Health Advocate. “This is a mandatory referral requiring your compliance,” Dennison told Flanagan on 30 July 2012. “Failure to comply will result in termination of employment.”
On Christmas Eve that year, Dennison emailed colleagues to say he had just warned Flanagan that he had one final chance to save his job. “I’m not entirely sure where his head is at,” said Dennison. Flanagan was fired three months later.
As he sued the station over his dismissal, Flanagan blamed everyone but himself. “My entire life was disrupted after moving clear across the country for a job only to have my dream turn into a nightmare,” he said, in a letter to a judge.
Flanagan’s rapid downfall at WDBJ7 is detailed in a series of candid memos obtained by the Guardian. Dennison, his boss, began sending internal messages about Flanagan’s behavior in May 2012, just two months after Flanagan began working at the station in southern Virginia. He appeared on screen under the name Bryce Williams.
“On three separate occasions in the past month and a half you have behaved in a manner that has resulted in one or more of your co-workers feeling threatened or uncomfortable,” Dennison told Flanagan.
The memo, addressed to Bryce Williams, said he had “used verbal and body language that left co-workers feeling both threatened and extremely uncomfortable” during a heated argument inside a live station truck.
The other instances involved Flanagan pressuring his accompanying photographer to record an interview in a certain way, forcefully repeating his demands in a way that made both the photographer and the interviewee uncomfortable.
“I’m not trying to be an asshole but the shaky video isn’t going to work,” he purportedly told the photographer before demanding that they redo the interview.
In the second memo, sent 30 July 2012, Dennison told him: “You have been the common denominator in these and other incidents outlined previously … It seems that you are taking the actions of many of the photographers quite personally and misinterpreting their actions or works.”
In a July performance review, a boss rated his ability to work with his co-workers as “unacceptable”. “The area where Bryce must make immediate improvement is with photographers. The issue is well-documented and has been discussed.”
In November, however, Flanagan was reprimanded once again – this time for wearing a sticker of President Obama while standing in line to vote in that year’s general election. Dennison told him he had clearly breached not just company regulations but also “standard journalistic ethics”. The news director wrote that they were “fast reaching the point” where Flanagan’s violations of policy “could mean termination”.
By December, Flanagan had a meeting with his bosses in which he said “maybe it’s time for me to go”. Dennison said that was his decision but they were willing to give him one more try, according to the email.
Yet Flanagan was fired in February 2013 due to “unsatisfactory job performance and inability to work as a team member”, according to his notice of termination.
His last day at work was recorded in exhaustive detail in another series of memos. Flanagan met with Dennison and another boss in his office. There Flanagan was informed he would be terminated. When he was presented with the severance package, Flanagan reportedly became angry and called it “bullshit”.
A second memo detailing his termination records Flanagan as yelling: “I’m not leaving, you’re going to have to call the f###ing police [sic],” Flanagan reportedly said, according to the memo. “Call the police. I’m not leaving. I’m going to make a stink and it’s going to be in the headlines.”
Flanagan then stormed out of the room and slammed the door, at which point Dennison decided to call the police.
When police arrived to escort him out of the building, Flanagan refused. The officers approached Flanagan and tried to remove the desk phone from his hand, repeatedly asking him to leave.
Flanagan then threw a hat and a small wooden cross at Dennison, reportedly saying: “You need this.”
As police escorted him out of the newsroom, he told an officer, according to the memo: “ You know what they did? They had a watermelon back there for a week and basically called me a n----- [sic].”
The memos were filed to a court in Roanoke, Virginia, as part of a civil lawsuit filed by Flanagan against the station in March 2014. He alleged racial and sexual discrimination, which the station denied. The case was dismissed later that year.
In May, Flanagan had sent a letter to Roanoke city general district court judge Francis Burkhart in which he claimed to be the victim of a “carefully orchestrated” attempt by the photography staff to have him “ousted” from the station.
He said he was upset that a staff photographer had reported him to the office’s human resources department after working with him only once. On Twitter earlier this month, Flanagan named Ward as the photographer whom he believed had reported him to HR.
Flanagan also claimed “racial harassment”, citing an incident in which he believed members of the newsroom deliberately placed a watermelon in his view. He said employees would make the fruit appear in different places around the newsroom.
“This was not an innocent incident,” Flanagan wrote. “The watermelon was placed in a strategic location where it would be visible to newsroom employees.
“What I encountered while employed at WDBJ-7 was nothing short of vile disgusting and inexcusable,” Flanagan wrote in the filing to Burkhart, which requested a trial by jury that he said should be entirely composed of African American women.
“Your Honor, I am not the monster here,” he said. “I get along with my current co-workers … [T]hat sure doesn’t sound like the monster I was painted to be.”
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