Saturday, December 19, 2015

They knew they’d marry someday. Then a gunman stole their future on live TV.

 
Chris Hurst wakes up in the two-bedroom condo he shared with slain WDBJ7 reporter Alison Parker. He picks out his wardrobe inside a closet lined with her dresses. He makes smoothies in their kitchen where the whiteboard shows her unerased message: “I  U!”
Now, on a mid-November morning, the 28-year-old anchor stands before a mirror inside the CBS station in southwest Virginia where they met and fell in love. He tightens the magenta tie she picked out at a Men’s Wearhouse, adjusts the striped socks she selected on a trip, then pads into WDBJ’s brand new “Studio A,” the letter “A” signifying a posthumous honor.

And there she is. Three enormous images of blonde, smiling Parker loom over Hurst in massive graphic displays with the headline: “The Long Goodbye: Alison’s Stories on Hospice.” Hurst and a cameraman begin recording promotions for a five-day series that was originally her idea.
“I’m Chris Hurst,” he says into the camera. “Tonight at six, we see the life of a hospice patient and learn why Alison Parker wanted to tell the hospice story.”
The station’s creative director thinks it sounds off. “Can you go faster, please?” he asks Hurst.
The red-haired anchor straightens his posture and starts again.
“Tonight at six, we’ll show you . . .” he says, his mouth tripping up. “Ugh. Sorry.”
It has been more than three months since Hurst lost the woman he wanted to marry in a shooting that marked a seemingly impossible watershed: Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were gunned down on live television Aug. 26 during an early morning interview with a local Chamber of Commerce executive at Smith Mountain Lake, about five hours south of Washington.
The shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan II, 41, a reporter who had been fired from WDBJ in 2013, used a video camera to record the killings and uploaded the footage onto his Twitter and Facebook pages. Several hours later, he shot himself in his car as police were closing in on him on Interstate 66.
In the aftermath, Hurst morphed from a reporter known for his crime scoops to a crime victim. He became a “get” himself, flipping through an album of photos and love notes on national networks the very next morning.
“We only had nine months together,” Hurst told Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America.
‘She gets a bit of a cameo’
He needs some B-roll, and he knows exactly the piece of footage he wants.
Hurst is editing a segment in the “Long Goodbye” hospice series he is finishing for Parker.
Chris Hurst sits at his desk while editing a story that his girlfriend, reporter Alison Parker, was working on. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)
Condolences sent from journalists across the country cover a wall in the newsroom of WDBJ. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)
At his cubicle, surrounded by condolence letters and a memo entitled “Suggestions For Those Dealing with Death,” he watches footage of a local man discussing his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. The man first noticed his wife’s memory problems when she mixed up their grandchildren’s snack requests.
What scene-setting images could Hurst use to illustrate the wife’s snack confusion? Parker, he remembers, had once filmed herself in their apartment’s kitchen opening the refrigerator door for another story. She had never used the footage. Instead, Hurst would.
“That’s her hand opening the refrigerator door,” Hurst says, smiling at the image playing on his newsroom computer. “I am not going to tell anyone about it. I guess she gets a bit of a cameo.”


 
Journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot and killed during a live shot for WDBJ7's morning news show. See how their coworkers, family, friends and the world will remember them. (The Washington Post)
Parker’s cameo in “The Long Goodbye” is more than just a hand. A minute-and-a-half into the first part, Hurst segues into a discussion about his own grief, with a photo of him and Parker dancing face-to-face and B-roll of condolence cards.
These reminders help him stay connected to Parker and what they shared, he says.
“I am not ashamed of what I’ve been going through and what I’ve been feeling,” he explains. “If I start to lose my memory of her, that’s what I am most fearful of.”
Mike Pettit, the station’s creative director, says he struggled with approving the huge graphics of Parker looming over the set.
“We had a long argument over using that picture, or any picture of her,” he says. “We didn’t want to feel like we were exploiting Alison’s memory. But after Chris [and another reporter] set me straight, I changed my mind. It was her story.”
‘My love for her was so intense’
They met in 2012, when Parker was a summer intern at WDBJ on the cusp of graduating from James Madison University. Hurst was two years into his anchor job, but they worked opposite shifts and hardly spoke.
Once that summer, Hurst took her to a courthouse to show her how to sift through search warrants. “I think I came off as gruff and intimidating,” he says.
Two years later, she was hired full-time as a morning reporter, and Hurst found her impossible to ignore. She was beautiful, but also funny, accomplished and smart. She had done so well in math and science in school that she considered becoming a doctor or pharmacist. She loved whitewater kayaking and Mexican food.
Hurst was a local celebrity, distinguished by his auburn hair and anchor gravitas. He coached the police squad in their annual “Guns & Hoses” hockey or softball games against firefighters.
Alison Parker and Chris Hurst in March 2015. (Courtesy of Chris Hurst)
Alison Parker and Chris Hurst, with dog Sophie, in July 2015. (Courtesy of Chris Hurst)
At the end of 2014, Hurst persuaded Parker to go out for lunch on New Year’s Day. Soon, they began dating. In those first few months, they hiked a piece of the Appalachian Trail and spent Sunday mornings critiquing news shows. When things got serious enough, they told friends at the station, including the human resources department.
“People were imagining a Channel 7 wedding aired live on TV,” Hurst says.
Her work hours were 3:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and his were from 2 p.m. to midnight. He’d swing by her place after his shift ended to wake her up, make breakfast and pack her a lunch.
“I’d always zip up the back of her dress,” he says. He’d clasp her jewelry for her, helping her put on necklaces and the turquoise bracelet from Tiffany’s that he had bought her for Valentine’s Day.
They planned their future. One day, Parker would trade morning features for harder-hitting stories. One day, she’d become a news director.
By early August, they had moved in together. They signed a lease for a two-bedroom condo about 10 minutes south of the station and 45 minutes north of her parents in Collinsville, Va., where she grew up in a house tucked into the woods.
On Aug. 17, two days before her 24th birthday, Hurst sat her down on their couch and presented her with a black onyx David Yurman ring.
“I don’t know what came over me. My love for her was so intense,” he says.
It was a promise, not an engagement. He knew she wasn’t ready to get married, but he wanted to show his commitment. She was so happy with Hurst’s selection that she texted a photo of the ring to her mom.
Nine days later, his cellphone woke him. It was the station calling. A shooting had occurred during Parker’s on-air interview at Smith Mountain Lake. They couldn’t reach her or Ward, the cameraman. Could he come in as soon as possible?
Hurst hung up and tried her number. No answer. He already knew.
On his way into the office, he called the sheriff of Franklin County, Va., on his cell. Any fatalities at the scene?
“He said, ‘I can’t confirm that for you,’ ” Hurst recalls. He was accustomed to the coded language from the crime beat: “I could read between the lines.”
He arrived at the station and stayed all day, steering clear of Flanagan’s horrifying videos on Twitter and Facebook. He slept at a nearby hotel so he could wake up early, stand outside WDBJ, and talk to national network anchors about a crime he would likely have covered himself if he weren’t a victim.
‘I wanted to watch him die’
“The Long Goodbye” is less than a week away from airing, but Hurst has to take a break from working on it. Prosecutors have summoned him to testify in the murder trial of Amanda Taylor, 24, charged with stabbing her ex-father-in-law 31 times.
The April homicide had transfixed southern Virginia. Much like the man who would take Alison Parker’s life, Taylor had bragged about the stabbing on social media, posting a confession on Instagram and a photo of her smiling with the knife and the victim on her Tumblr page.
It was Hurst who had scored a jailhouse phone interview with Taylor just a few weeks after the killing.
“I just wanted him to know, like, it was me, and I wanted to watch him die,” she told Hurst. “So, you know, I stabbed him to death.”
Prosecutors wanted him to confirm in court that he had interviewed Taylor. Hurst didn’t see why that was necessary. He also worried that Taylor’s defense attorney, who had asked him not to air the scoop, would somehow shame him for having persuaded his client to talk about her pending murder trial.
When Hurst is called into the courtroom, Taylor — who will be convicted later that day and sentenced to life in prison — smiles at him. Hurst looks straight ahead at the judge.
Prosecutors play a portion of the interview. On cross-examination, Taylor’s attorney presses Hurst about details of the scoop that the reporter has long forgotten. Didn’t he listen to the interview before the trial? the frustrated defense attorney asks.
No, Hurst replies.
“As a good witness, I probably should have listened to the interview,” Hurst acknowledges after his testimony. But given everything that had happened since, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Parker’s death, he says, has made him regret putting a publicity-seeking killer in the spotlight. He wishes he had done more to highlight the pain of Taylor’s victims.
‘Part of our family’
The next morning, Hurst drives south to visit Parker’s parents, Andy and Barbara. He has been spending a lot of time with them since Alison’s death.
For lunch, the trio heads to Los Nortenos, a Parker family favorite. At the front entrance, a kiosk shows old Christmas cards with photos of Alison, her older brother, Drew, 28, and their father under the words “Happiness & Cheer” and “Merry Merry!”
Over enchiladas, they talk about the future.
“You’re Mom Parker and Dad Parker in my phone,” Hurst tells them.
He’s not close to being ready to date again, but they all know that someday he will be.
“You’ll always be part of our family,” Andy says. “But you’re going to meet someone at some point, and you’re going to move on. Alison set a pretty high bar, so it better be someone you approve and certainly better be someone Alison would approve of, or she’d be really pissed.”
Hurst nods. He wants to travel and pursue stories that will make a difference in the world. He mentions a National Geographic magazine article he read while sequestered at the murder trial. The story was about the perils of Bangladeshi men toiling in the country’s ship-breaking yards.
“This reporter went over there and documented these people. They get their fingers chopped off and get killed,” Hurst says. “All I could think of was: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to go out and do that story?’ ”
They finish lunch, pay the check and drive back to the Parkers’ home.
That night, in a house filled with pictures of the woman he loved, Hurst climbs into the bed she occupied as a child and goes to sleep.