Vester Lee Flanagan II submitted his application Feb. 22, 2012, to be a Roanoke TV news reporter.
Thirteen days later, he got the job.
“We greatly look forward to having you join [WDBJ (Channel 7)] and become a member of our team,” read a March 6, 2012, letter from the station.
It promised Flanagan — who lived in Vallejo, California, and worked under the name Bryce Williams — about $36,000 a year, plus $500 in travel expenses to move to Virginia.
Those details are part of Flanagan’s WDBJ personnel history, which wound up in Roanoke General District Court as part of his civil action against the station.
He’d been fired after less than a year and soon alleged numerous grievances, including a hostile work environment, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, mental anguish and credit card debt caused by his firing. A judge dismissed the case in July 2014.
In light of what happened Wednesday — Flanagan shot and killed two WDBJ journalists and wounded a chamber of commerce official during a live television interview — the memos and documents in his personnel file read like an escalating nightmare.
Flanagan started work at WDBJ on March 29, 2012. By May 31 he was meeting with then-News Director Dan Dennison to discuss three separate incidents that “resulted in one or more of your co-workers feeling threatened or uncomfortable.”
Dennison cited Flanagan for “a heated confrontation with another reporter inside a station live truck … in which you lost your temper,” as well as two incidents in which he argued with staff photographers.
During a May 24, 2012, video shoot, the file said, Flanagan insisted the cameraman film an interview as a “two shot,” which would include both Flanagan and the subject, even though the cameraman objected.
“You interrupted the interview three times to make sure the photographer was framing the shot as you wished,” Dennison wrote. “The photographer reports that doing this in front of the interview subject made both he and the interviewee feel uncomfortable.
“We want you to work on the tone of your interpersonal relationships and exercise great care in dealing with stressful situations or disagreements and your response to them,” Dennison wrote.
But matters did not improve. At the end of July another personnel memo complained about Flanagan’s “harsh language” and “aggressive body language.”
“You have been the common denominator in these incidents,” Dennison wrote and told Flanagan he had to participate in the station’s employee assistance program or be fired.
The documents show that by late December, Flanagan’s supervisors also had grown less satisfied with his work. Tasked with a report on gun control, he instead submitted a feature on a local creamery. Assigned to cover a memorial in the wake of the Newtown shootings, Flanagan mostly promoted a local church’s desire to raise membership, Dennison said. The news director accused his reporter of “gratuitous coverage and promotion.”
On Feb. 1, just days after a clash with a news anchor, the station let Flanagan go. Those discussions became hostile, according to the file.
“You’d better call police because I’m going to make a big stink,” Flanagan told his supervisors.
Police removed him from the building.
In separate interviews Thursday, two national experts on workplace violence offered the same phrase in reference to what they knew of Flanagan.
They called him a “grievance collector.”
It’s an especially volatile category of disgruntled employees who hoard “who-did-me-wrongs,” said Larry Barton, a professor at the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and a trainer in threat assessment at the FBI Academy at Quantico.
“I worry about somebody who moves into the basement of emotions and collects grievances,” Barton said.
Some level of narcissism can be adaptive, he said, for people like models and actors.
“That’s different from this kind of narcissist, who blames others for his own shortcomings,” Barton said. “A grievance collector should be considered dangerous.”
Collecting grievances can become an avocation of sorts, said Mario Scalora, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a participant in the FBI’s Workforce Violence Working Group.
Both Barton and Scalora also serve as consultants to companies concerned about employee safety.
Barton said Thursday that he has begun studying Flanagan’s case. And Scalora said he was busy handling inquiries from corporate clients, including at least one news organization, about how to keep employees safe.
TV journalists, especially at major networks, can be vulnerable to stalkers, Scalora said, partly because broadcast journalists tend to be attractive people.
Scalora said it is not unusual for a grievance collector to fume, plan and obsess about perceived wrongs for some time before acting out with violence.
“Some people can be very clever in how they mask their grievances,” Barton said. “What’s chilling about this is that he held on to very specific anger for more than two years.”
In tweets Flanagan posted after the shooting, he wrote of Ward: “Adam went to hr on me after working with me one time.”
That echoes something Flanagan wrote more than a year earlier, in a May 2014 letter to the judge who heard his civil case: “There was a carefully orchestrated effort by the photography staff to oust me — a conspiracy,” he wrote. “Why did one of the photographers go to HR on me after working with me ONLY ONCE.”
It’s not clear when — or whether — Ward ever complained to human resources about Flanagan. But if he did, it likely would have been sometime in mid-2012, more than three years before the shootings.
Barton said a woman in California waited six years before killing former co-workers she blamed for her woes.
Bill Badzmierowski, a trainer for the Crisis Prevention Institute, said there is no one-size-fits-all psychological profile for people who turn grudges into homicidal rage.
“The biggest predictor seems to be a threat of violence and a history of violent behavior,” he said.
Katherine Newman, author of “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings,” said research suggests there is no single profile that describes killers who harbor a grudge that ultimately foments violence.
“It’s not really possible to predict that someone will do something like this,” said Newman, the provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
But there can be indications, especially before school shootings, that someone is contemplating an armed rampage, she said. Sometimes there are warnings and threats, she said.
That did not seem to be the case with Flanagan, despite feedback from his employers at WDBJ that his anger and intimidating behaviors were unacceptable.
Some workplace behaviors stand out, Scalora said.
“If it bothers your gut and raises the hair on the back of your neck,” it likely deserves reporting to human resources or others in management, he said.
Management can seek specialized screening to help assess the risks posed by the worker, Scalora said.
There are occasions, he said, when employers should try to monitor disgruntled employees for a time after their firing.
“Just because he’s not in the building does not mean he is no longer a threat,” Scalora said.
Station General Manager Jeff Marks said Thursday that members of the news staff had encountered Flanagan on occasion, long after the former reporter’s firing. Those encounters were more like sightings than interactions, he said, and there was no report of Flanagan being confrontational and no known instance of him trying to enter WDBJ’s building.
Scalora also said he felt disturbed by Flanagan’s decision to videotape his attack and post it on social media. The killer reaps an international audience to both air his grievances and try to humiliate his victims, he said.
Barton offered a similar observation.
“He wanted to be a martyr,” Barker said, “He wanted to be memorialized.”