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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

By Gary Robertson

MONETA, Virginia (Reuters) – A television reporter and a cameraman were shot and killed during a live broadcast in Virginia on Wednesday in an attack authorities said was carried out by a former employee of the TV station.

The suspect, 41-year-old Vester Flanagan, shot and wounded himself several hours later as police pursued him on a Virginia highway. He died later at the hospital, police said.

Social media postings by a person who appeared to be Flanagan indicated the suspect had grievances against the station, CBS affiliate WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia, which let him go two years ago.

The WDBJ7 journalists who were killed were reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27. The woman being interviewed on the morning news program was wounded.

The on-air shooting occurred at about 6:45 a.m. EDT (1045 GMT) during an interview at Bridgewater Plaza, a Smith Mountain Lake recreation site about 200 miles (320 km) southwest of Washington, D.C.

The broadcast was abruptly interrupted by the sound of gunshots as Parker and the woman being interviewed, Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, screamed and ducked for cover.

Hours after the shooting, someone claiming to have filmed it posted video online that appeared to be from the shooter’s vantage point. The videos were posted to a Twitter account and on Facebook by a man identifying himself as Bryce Williams, which was Flanagan’s on-air name.

The videos were removed shortly afterward. One video clearly showed a handgun as the person filming approached the woman reporter.

The person purporting to be Williams also posted, “I filmed the shooting see Facebook” as well as saying one of the victims had “made racist comments.”

Flanagan had sued another station where he worked in Florida, alleging he had been discriminated against because he was black.

Flanagan said he was called a “monkey” by a producer in a lawsuit filed in federal court against a Tallahassee station, WTWC, in 2000. He also said a supervisor at the station called black people lazy. The Florida case was settled and dismissed the next year, court records show.

The victims in Wednesday’s shooting were white.

VEHICLE RAN OFF THE ROAD

ABC News reported on its website it received a 23-page fax from someone claiming to be Bryce Williams some time between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. The network turned the fax over to authorities, it said, without giving details on its contents.

Flanagan shot himself as Virginia State Police were closing in on a rental car on Interstate 66 in Fauquier County, WDBJ7 said. Virginia state police said the suspect refused to stop when spotted by troopers and sped away.

“Minutes later, the suspect’s vehicle ran off the road and crashed. The troopers approached the vehicle and found the male driver suffering from a gunshot wound,” police said in a statement.

He was taken to a nearby hospital, police said, adding he was believed to be the suspect in the television shootings. Police said later he had died.

Asked on CNN if the station had been targeted or had been threatened, WDBJ7 President and General Manager Jeff Marks said, “Every now and then you get a crazy email or something and we’ll look into it. Nothing of this nature that any of us could recall.”

He said the interview was to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Smith Mountain Lake.

The station’s broadcast showed Parker interviewing Gardner about the lake and tourism development in the area. Gunshots erupted, and as Ward fell his camera hit the ground but kept running. An image caught on camera showed what appeared to be a man in dark clothing facing the camera with a weapon in his right hand.

The station described the two dead journalists as an ambitious reporter-and-cameraman team who often produced light and breezy feature stories for the morning program.

“I cannot tell you how much they were loved,” Marks said.

They were both engaged to be married to other people.

The White House said the shooting was another example of gun violence that is “becoming all too common.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that Congress could pass legislation that would have a “tangible impact on reducing gun violence in this country.”

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said, “Keeping guns out of the hands of people who would use them to harm our family, friends and loved ones is not a political issue; it is a matter of ensuring that more people can come home safely at the end of the day.”

According to his social media sites, Flanagan attended San Francisco State University. A university spokesman said he graduated in 1995 with a degree in radio and television.

(Reporting by Emily Flitter, Laila Kearney and Barbara Goldberg in New York and Ian Simpson in Washington; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Photo: Vester Lee Flanagan, who was known on-air as Bryce Williams is shown in this handout photo from TV station WDBJ7 obtained by Reuters August 26, 2015. REUTERS/WDBJ7/Handout via Reuters