Trooper was at right place, right time with right technology

Virginia State Police trooper Pamela M. Neff demonstrates how to use the license plate reader in her cruiser. The reader is credited with locating shooting suspect Vester Lee Flanagan II's vehicle after it passed her cruiser, which was parked at the interchange of Interstates 81 and 66 on Wednesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

MIDDLETOWN – Trooper Pamela M. Neff of the Virginia State Police said she was in the right place with the right technology to help law enforcement catch Vester Lee Flanagan II on Wednesday.

Flanagan was the suspect in the case of a deadly shooting that occurred Wednesday morning that resulted in the death of television reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward and hospitalized Vicki Gardner, of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce.  Flanagan died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound following a police pursuit on Interstate 66 on Wednesday afternoon.

In a series of follow-up interviews with the media on Thursday, Neff and Sgt. F.L. “Les” Tyler explained the License Plate Reader technology that was critical in aiding law enforcement’s pursuit of Flanagan.

The system has two mounted cameras on the outside – one for daytime shots and one for nighttime shots — and a computer inside the car.

Once the system is activated and the car’s engine is running, it automatically takes photos of anything that looks like a license plate within a 20-30-foot range of the cameras.

A license plate reader is mounted on the rear trunk lid of trooper Pamela M. Neff's cruiser. Rich Cooley/Daily

That information is then relayed onto the car’s computer screen and checked against plates on the National Crime Information Center’s database.

Neff said that she has taken over 6,000 photos of license plates in a single day, without maxing out the memory space of the system.

After 24-hours, the photos are wiped from the systems memory. Neff noted that images of Flanagan’s car were turned over as evidence for the investigation.

Tyler said  state police have 44 of these units, including five within the Culpeper District – which includes the counties of Warren, Shenandoah and Frederick as well as the city of Winchester.

“The units range in price from $295 to about $375,” Tyler said, noting that the 44 units were purchased through a combination of VSP general funds, Virginia Insurance Fraud funding and a grant from the Urban Area Security Initiative.

That grant is funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide support for “target hardening and other physical security enhancements” for nonprofit organizations like the Virginia State Police.

“Not only do we use the tag reader to search for stolen vehicles or vehicles that have been associated with crimes … we also use it anytime there is an amber alert,” Tyler said.

In 2014, Tyler said the readers helped state police recover 57 stolen vehicles, the arrests of 13 wanted persons, recovery of 103 stolen license plates and the location of 19 sex offenders.

The morning of the shooting, Neff said that she was stationed at the Virginia Truck Scales Weight Station located at mile marker 304 of Interstate 81 near Middletown.

When she got word that Flanagan was possibly traveling north, Neff said she relocated to the I-81, I-66 interchange and exit 300 precisely because it was a single-lane road.

“I knew that I was going to be able to get every single vehicle that came off of the exit ramp to I-66 from where I was sitting at,” Neff said.

Less than 20 minutes after Neff set-up at the interchange, she received new information regarding a possible vehicle that Flanagan could be operating.

All Neff had to do was type the plate numbers of the 2015 Chevrolet Sonic into the system, and in an instant, it registered a ping that the vehicle had passed no more than three minutes prior to that.

The pings that Neff referred to essentially amount to an exact location of where the car passed the camera. It does not give the officers any indication of the vehicle’s direction or destination.

From there, Neff said, “That’s my responsibility to figure out where that vehicle might be going. And I knew there was only one way that vehicle can go. That was eastbound on 66.”

“I didn’t know that was the suspect’s vehicle in question,” she said, noting that the vehicle’s plate was not entered into the national database at the time.

After a pursuit that lasted 12 minutes, Flanagan drove off into an embankment near Markham. Troopers discovered Flanagan suffering an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was later pronounced dead at a Northern Virginia hosptial.

“I was just at the right place at the right time with the right piece of technology to get the subject,” Neff said. “Without it yesterday, I don’t believe that we would have been able to catch the suspect as quickly as we did.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com