Fifteen years ago, before journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were killed in Virginia on live TV Wednesday, the man police say shot them lived and worked in Florida’s capital city.
For 12 months in 1999 and 2000, Vester Flanagan — who went by the name Bryce Williams on air — was a reporter for WTWC, an NBC affiliate in Tallahassee. He anchored the news on weekends and covered local news during the week.
“I’m in total shock that someone, let alone a former colleague, did this,” said Michael Walker, who was the producer of WTWC’s weekend newscast while Flanagan worked there. “I’m really just trying to process it.”
Walker, who now owns a multimedia production company in Tallahassee, said he was never close friends with Flanagan. Still, he and others in the close-knit Tallahassee media market said they were shaken by the news.
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“All they [Parker and Ward] were doing was doing their jobs. They showed up to work not expecting that they wouldn’t come home,” Walker, a 20-year veteran of the TV news business, said. “I’m heartbroken … That could have been any number of people I know.”
Flanagan was fired from WTWC in early 2000 as part of budget cuts. The move prompted Flanagan to file a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by his employer, claims that would be echoed Wednesday on social media before Flanagan posted disturbing videos of the shooting and ultimately took his own life.
On Twitter, he wrote that Parker had “made racist comments” and that he had filed reports against WDBJ with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Roanoke, Va., station fired him in 2013.
The Tallahassee lawsuit, filed in Leon County in February 2000, accuses WTWC of firing Flanagan as retaliation for discrimination complaints he levied against the station. In court filings, he says that he was called a “monkey” by a producer at the station and that he overheard racist comments that “blacks are lazy” and suggesting that a black murder suspect was “just another thug.” He said someone in the station’s leadership told another black employee to “stop talking ebonics.”
Documents filed by the station in the lawsuit contend that Flanagan wasn’t fired in retaliation or because of race but rather because of budgetary constraints and bad behavior. They highlight “misbehavior” regarding coworkers, his refusal to follow directions, swearing at work and not responding to constructive criticism of his performance.
Ultimately, the issue was settled out of court in 2001, and court documents don’t detail terms of the agreement.
Walker, who is also an African American, said he never saw or experienced discrimination at the station, which he described as “pretty diverse.”
“If it was going on, I didn’t see it,” he said. “From my experience we were a close-knit family. We all looked out for each other and worked as professionals.”
Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.