Vester Lee Flanagan II, who murdered two journalists this week, had a troubled childhood, according to court documents. (Photo: AP)
Before Vester Lee Flanagan II shot and killed Roanoke, Va., journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward on live television and then committed suicide, the public knew him as Bryce Williams, a reporter at station WDBJ who covered local news stories. In the days that followed the double murder, alleged details about his troubled past have emerged, particularly surrounding his late mother.
According to court papers obtained by the New York Daily News, Flanagan’s parents, Betty Flanagan and Vester Lee Flanagan Sr., divorced when Vester Lee was 8 years old. And Flanagan Sr., now 76, had filed a restraining order against his wife, a former teacher, who he claimed was “extremely menacing and threatening” to his son and two daughters, Valerie, 10, and Vicki, 9. “She has also repeatedly threatened my life, at least on one occasion threatening to shoot me in my sleep, and the children have heard these threats and are understandably upset,” read the documents.
Flanagan Sr., who was granted a divorce in 1982, along with physical custody of his three children, also wrote, “She has, for example, threatened the lives and safety of our children as a method of attempting to keep me from leaving the house to go to work. At other times, the respondent (Betty) is calm, rational, and charming, but the children and I are unable to anticipate or control these outbursts or threats of violence.” He also added that Betty “threatened the children with a brush and a belt, and had I not removed these weapons from her hands, I am certain she would have used them on the children.”
The court granted the father physical custody of his children. Betty, meanwhile, was ordered to move out of the family home, stay away from her estranged husband’s workplace, and to not “attack, strike, threaten or otherwise disturb the peace of the three minor children.”
Vester Lee was perceived as having a similarly difficult temperament, and a childhood friend told People that he “wanted to be famous.”
According to Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills–based psychotherapist who has never met Vester Lee, while volatile eruptions in his childhood home may have escalated once the parents began having marital troubles, it’s likely that they were ongoing during the gunman’s entire childhood.
What’s more, she speculates, the gunman may have felt a strong identification with his mother. “All children subconsciously observe or feel who holds the power in their family of origin, and identify with that person because, to a child, power means getting what they want,” Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting. “However, aggression and violence is a distorted perception of power because the one who is raging doesn’t have control.” She adds that this unhealthy dynamic might have been improved by raising self-awareness, or through intervention with therapy.
And while it’s unknown how Betty treated her son apart from his sisters, his decision to murder two people on live television — and record the act — may have reflected a desire to be heard or recognized after a childhood of neglect. “That’s certainly possible,” says Walfish. “And, by committing suicide, it also shows that he couldn’t face the consequences of what he did.”