Virginia gunman followed TV station’s order to seek outside help, boss says
The television news reporter who shot dead two former colleagues during a live broadcast complied with an order from management that he seek outside help for persistent performance and behavioral issues, the general manager of WDBJ confirmed on Thursday.
The 10 months Vester Flanagan worked as a multimedia journalist at WDBJ7, a CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, were fraught with workplace disputes and flare-ups, as detailed in a series of memos obtained by the Guardian – including a mandatory referral to a third-party program dedicated to counseling. More than two years after he was dismissed by the company, Flanagan shot dead reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward during a live report on Wednesday morning.
Flanagan, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, was reprimanded multiple times during the first few months at the station for behavioral problems, which colleagues characterized as bizarre and threatening. Flanagan was fired from the station on 1 February 2013.
One of the station’s internal memos detailed news director Dan Dennison’s demand that Flanagan seek help at Health Advocate, the station’s employee assistance program. “This is a mandatory referral requiring your compliance,” Dennison wrote in the July 2012 memo. “Failure to comply will result in termination of employment.”
“We made it mandatory that he seek help from our employee assistance program,” said Jeff Marks, president and general manager of WDBJ7, during a press conference in Roanoke on Thursday. “Many companies have them, they provide counseling and other services.”
At the press conference a television reporter asked whether Flanagan had followed up with “medical help”. Marks, after turning to consult the station’s human resources director, answered: “Yes, he complied.”
He added that Flanagan had sought help on “at least one occasion”. Marks said Flanagan’s “behavior and performance issues” included bursts of “anger” and an inability to work with some co-workers.
A few minutes later, after speaking with the station’s lawyer, Marks returned to the podium to clarify that the employee assistance program is “not necessarily for medical help”. It could involve financial counseling or family counseling, he said.
When pressed on whether Flanagan had mental issues, Marks declined to provide further details beyond, “It was behavioral.”
“I think he had a number of issues that caused us to think that the EAP would be appropriate,” Marks said. “I don’t think we identified that he had mental health issues, we certainly identified that he had performance issues and one of the reasons we send people to professionals is to sort that out.”
Marks added: “We didn’t say, ‘You have mental health issues.’ I believe we said ‘You have performance issues with a colleague and for that we want you to get some outside help.’”
EAP’s Health Advocate program that provides employees with “early and effective professional counseling and work/life support”, offering “a spectrum” of services including “one-on-one help”, according to an online brochure.
An official for Health Advocate said the company was aware it had been linked to coverage of the shooting but could not confirm whether Flanagan had sought help, citing privacy laws.
“Our condolences go out to the families, friends and colleagues of the victims of yesterday’s senseless tragedy in Virginia,” Jessica Parker-Smith, a vice-president at Health Advocate, told the Guardian in a statement.
Flanagan’s career struggles at WDBJ7 were documented in detail in memos filed to a court in Roanoke, Virginia, as part of a civil lawsuit filed by Flanagan against the station in March 2014. In the suit, Flanagan alleged racial and sexual harassment and sought 21,925.98€ in unpaid overtime. The case was dismissed later that year.
The station investigated the alleged incidents and could not corroborate them. On Thursday, Marks said the allegations were “without merit”.
Flanagan was placed on final warning by the station in December 2012 for failure to check his facts in a news story, Marks said.
After the press conference, as the WDBJ staff filed back into their office, news director Kelly Zuber said: “The newsroom has become a sort of sanctuary for us. We have people breaking down. It comes on suddenly. Then they pick themselves up and keep going. So it’s our sanctuary.”
Parker’s father, in an impassioned interview that went viral on Thursday called for “whatever it takes to get gun legislation – to shame people, to shame legislators into doing something about closing loopholes in background checks and making sure crazy people don’t get guns”.