TV Station That Hired Virginia Shooter Failed to Check His References Using His Birth Name

By Michael Klazema on 8/25/2015
The shooter in the Roanoke, Virginia tragedy that took place on Wednesday, August 26th went by Bryce Williams when he was an anchor at the TV news station, WDBJ. But like many TV anchors, Williams used an on-air moniker meant to be easily read and remembered by television viewers, not his birth name. His real name was Vester Flanagan, and according to a recent report from the USA Today, WDBJ neglected to run a reference and employment history check using Flanagan's birth name back when he was hired.

Flanagan died shortly after the August 26th incident of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. That morning, he had shot and killed two former co-workers from WDBJ on-air reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward. The tragic incident has sparked conversations about gun control and firearm background checks around the nation, but there may also be a discussion to be had about how TV stations go about background checking reporters who go by multiple different aliases.

According to the USA Today report, WDBJ did run a criminal background check on Bryce Williams using his true name. (The criminal checks, WDBJ's General Manager said, did not reveal any red flags that would have prevented Williams from working at the station.) However, when it came to verifying employment history and checking references, the station only looked at the Bryce Williams name. In other words, WDBJ did not look back to see where Vester Flanagan worked, and what his employers had to say about him, before he adopted the Bryce Williams moniker.

Several experts interviewed for the USA Today report admitted that it's not uncommon for television journalists to use a different name on air. However, most of them said that the practice is becoming less and less common in modern times, and that it's definitely rare for a person to insist on using an alias that is completely different from their birth name. Usually, TV journalists that use different names on air use derivatives or variations on their real name, they don't invent a completely new identity. The experts interviewed theorized that Flanagan's insistence on using the Bryce Williams identity could have been motivated by anything from a desire to hide his past to a sign of a psychological issue.

In any case, it is certainly recommended that television stations and other workplaces where aliases are used run even more in-depth background checks than other employers. In this case, a full alias and address history check may have helped to shed some light on Vester Flanagan's past. WDBJ then could have gone back and run separate background, reference, and employment/education background checks on each different name.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that these steps would have predicted the tragic events of August 26th, but they would have showcased further due diligence on the part of the TV station, and may have given the station pause over hiring Flanagan. After all, as at least one expert quoted in the USA Today article noted, Flanagan's insistence on using an identity completely different than his birth name should have been a red flag by itself.

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