Thoughts on Vester Lee Flanagan’s On-Air Murders

On August 27th, Vester Lee Flanagan II, a disgruntled former employee of a Virginia TV news station, stalked and murdered two former coworkers as they conducted a live interview. The TV station quickly cut back to a shocked news anchor who told viewers that she would report back with information about what just happened.

Before long, video of the incident found its way onto the internet where anyone could watch the shooting. While the sounds were chilling, not much was visible in this footage as the cameraman dropped his camera (either because he was shot or because he tried to escape) soon after the first shots are fired. In response, Internet users scowered YouTube for a clearer alternative, and quickly found a second video. This video, they soon realized, was uploaded to a social media website by Flanagan
himself.

This second video, which I suspect was recorded on a smartphone, is surprisingly long as Flanagan takes his time before opening fire. He aims his gun at his targets a few times (he whispers “bitch” when he aims at one of his victims) before pulling the trigger. When he begins to fire, viewers are able to see and hear the shooting from Flanagan’s point of view: they can hear the loud bang of a gunshot as it is heard by a shooter, to see as the gun recoils slightly just as it seen by a shooter, and viewers can also see as the victims try to run as they are being shot.

There are a number of elements to this murder to discuss including problems related to the accessibility of guns, as well as Flanagan’s claims (in a confession he faxed to a news station after the shooting) that he did what he did because he was a gay black man who had suffered racial
discrimination and bullying at work. But what stands out to me, is Flanagan’s decision to record his shooting and upload the resulting video.

For some reason, Flanagan seemed to think that it would be a good idea to record his shooting and then post the resulting video online for all to see. His written confession and his eventual suicide suggests he was not trying to escape the repercussions of his crime. So it is not the fact that the video exposes his identity and his guilt that is of interest to me. Rather, I suspect that his decision to record his murder was purely to document his crime and bring attention to it. With his video, his confession note, and several tweets detailing his motivations (including tweets accusing his victims of racism), Flanagan seemed to want to grab the Internet’s attention, clarify his motivations, and declare himself a victim. He seemed to want to tell the world why he did what he did in his own words.

Though social scientific research has discussed peoples’ surprising willingness to incriminate themselves by posting videos of their crimes on social media, much of this work proposes that these people do so without recognizing the repercussions of their self-exposure. Flanagan does not fit this mould, as he did not seem to have ‘outted’ himself because of ignorance or naivety, but with the specific purpose of telling the world about his motivations.

As smartphone cameras become more popular and social media continues to offer people a platform from which to tell others how we feel, criminals can take advantage of these technologies to voice their opinions. Though this may mean self-incrimination, it seems that for criminals like Vester Lee Flanagan II, it is well worth the opportunity to offer the world their point of view.

I wonder, as our surveillance society evolves and as criminals realize that they have the opportunity to voice their perspective, if we will see more of these point of view crime videos. I wonder what this means for assumptions about the criminal’s desire for secrecy, privacy, and anonymity.

Ajay Sandhu
Sociology PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta
Ajay can be found here.