MONETA, Va. – Police say a former WDBJ-TV reporter sought in connection with the on-air slayings of two of the TV station’s employees took his life Wednesday on Interstate 66 in Virginia after police confronted him, a law enforcement official told CNN.
Just before 11:30 a.m., Virginia State Police saw the suspect’s gray Ford Mustang headed east on I-66. With emergency lights activated, a Virginia State Police trooper initiated a traffic stop, said police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
The driver refused to stop and sped away before running off the road and crashing, Geller told CNN. Troopers found the driver inside. He had suffered a gunshot wound.
He was transported to a nearby hospital for treatment of life-threatening injuries, Geller said. The driver is believed to be the suspect in the on-air shootings of two WDBJ journalists and an interviewee, she said without naming the driver.
Vester Flanagan, who was being sought in connection with the shootings, was a reporter at WDBJ for about a year using the on-air name, Bryce Williams, according to a former WDBJ employee.
Flanagan was fired from the station, though the reason was not made public, the ex-employee said.
“Two years ago, we had to separate him from the company. We did understand that he was still living in the area,” WDBJ General Manager Jeff Marks said.
ABC News reported that it received a fax containing a 23-page manifesto from someone named Bryce Williams, acccording to a tweet. The document was handed over to investigators, ABC said.
Two videos posted on a Twitter account under the name, Bryce Williams, show someone walking up to the WDBJ news crew and pointing a gun at them.
Another tweet says, “I filmed the shooting.” The Facebook and Twitter account were suspended shortly after the tweets.
Video shows the gunman approaching WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward as Parker conducted a routine interview about a local story outside Moneta, Virginia.
Ward’s back is to the gunman. Parker is in profile, and the interviewee is facing the gunman. The shooter appears to take his time aiming the gun, presenting it and then withdrawing it, before composing the angle of his video. He opens fire on Parker first. Both Parker and the interviewee scream.
Shocking morning broadcast
During the live broadcast around 6:45 a.m., TV viewers saw the camera fall to the ground and caught the briefest glimpse of a man who appeared to point a gun toward the downed cameraman.
The station cut away to a shocked anchor, Kimberly McBroom, back in the studio.
Parker, 24, and photographer Adam Ward, 27, were killed at Bridgewater Plaza near Moneta, the station reported later.
Ward’s fiancée was in the control room and saw the shooting, Marks told CNN.
Though Marks has heard that Flanagan had leveled accusations in the past, he said, “I don’t think (reporter) Alison (Parker) and that individual even overlapped here.”
Marks added he was not exaggerating when he says that Parker and photographer Adam Ward were "the kindest and nicest people who worked here. ... I can't figure out any connection."
The woman being interviewed, Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, was shot in the back and is in surgery, said Barb Nocera, the chamber's special projects manager.
Gardner is recovering from emergency surgery and is in stable condition, according to Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital in Rocky Mount, Virginia.
The gunman is believed to have fired six or seven times, Marks said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined in the manhunt, while the ATF and FBI are participating in the investigation. Area schools are on lockdown.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told WTOP radio in Washington that the suspected gunman may be a disgruntled employee of the TV station.
Parker a 'rock star'
"We do not know the motive," Marks said. "We do know the Franklin County sheriff ... they are working very diligently to track down both the motive and the person responsible for this terrible crime against two fine journalists," he said during the station's coverage of the shooting.
"Our hearts are broken," Marks said. "We have people walking around here in tears, lots of hugs."
McBroom described Parker as a "rock star" and said, "You throw anything at that girl and she could do it."
Another journalist at the anchor's desk said Ward was engaged to be married to morning show producer at WDBJ, Melissa Ott, and Ward recently told her, "I'm going to get out of news. I think I'm going to do something else."
Ward joined WDBJ in 2011 after graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in communication and media studies, according to his Facebook page. He enrolled at the university in 2007, the same year a gunman went on a deadly rampage, leaving 32 people dead.
In April, days before the eighth anniversary of the campus massacre, Ward changed his Facebook profile photo to an image of the Virginia Tech logo with a black ribbon.
The school said in a statement, "It is shocking and deeply saddening for this community to be again struck by gun violence. We deplore this senseless violence, now seemingly commonplace in our society."
Added one of Ward's professors, Robert Denton, "Adam was a delightful person. He worked hard -- you could tell he loved what he was doing. He wasn't afraid to pitch in and do whatever was necessary for the broadcast. He did whatever was needed with a smile and with grace. He was simply a very nice young man and very professional."
Parker was the morning reporter for the Roanoke station and a native of Virginia, having spent most of her life outside Martinsville. She started with WDBJ as an intern, her biography on the station's website says.
She joined WDBJ last year after completing a summer internship as a news reporter in 2012.
She previously worked with another CNN affiliate, WCTI-TV, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. She was a graduate of James Madison University's School of Media Arts and Design in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Boyfriend describes himself as 'numb'
Chris Hurst, a reporter for the station, tweeted that he and Parker "were very much in love" and had just moved in together after dating nine months, "the best nine months of our lives. We wanted to get married. We just celebrated her 24th birthday."
He continued, "She was the most radiant woman I ever met. And for some reason she loved me back. She loved her family, her parents and her brother."
Hurst described himself as "numb."
Parker and Ward worked together every day, Hurst tweeted. "They were a team. I am heartbroken for his fiancee," he wrote.
"You know, you send people into war zones, you send people into dangerous situations and into riots, and you worry that they are going to get hurt. You send somebody out to do a story on tourism and -- how can you expect something like this to happen?" Marks told CNN.
The shooting made Marks want to step out of his role as a journalist and say of the shooter, "I don't know whether I want him to live or die," he told CNN.
A local pastor, "a friend of the newsroom," is at the station, consoling Parker's and Ward's co-workers, he said.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller released a statement Wednesday morning:
Media are apparently reporting that Virginia State Police is in pursuit of the suspect vehicle involved in this morning’s Franklin County fatal shootings… this is WRONG. The Virginia State Police are NOT engaged in any pursuit with the suspect vehicle.
Franklin County Sheriff’s Office: The following statement is from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office –the LEAD investigative agency on this incident. The Virginia State Police is assisting..
The Franklin County, Virginia Sheriff’s Office is investigating a shooting that occurred this morning at Bridgewater Plaza near Smith Mountain Lake. At this time, Franklin County sheriff’s officials can confirm that three people were shot. Two of the individuals are deceased and a third victim is hospitalized. The shooting occurred around 6:45 a.m. during a WDBJ 7 (CBS affiliate) live shot.
The shooter has not been apprehended. Attached are two still images of the male suspect that was taken from video that was recorded by a WDBJ camera. The suspect is holding a weapon.
Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies have secured the area where the shooting occurred and are respectfully asking that the public and media stay away from this area for their safety and so that deputies can move forward with the investigation.
If anyone has information about the identity of the gunman or other information that may assist investigators, they are asked to call 911 or the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office at 540-483-3000.
The Sheriff’s Office is being assisted by local, state and federal agencies and they are in the process of setting up a command center and staging area for the media. The location is the Willard Office Plaza at 13245 Booker T. Washington Highway in Hardy, Va.
A press conference has been scheduled for 1:00 p.m. at the Willard Office Plaza location.