Suspect in Va. death was a Nazi sympathizer, teacher says
"It was obvious that he had this fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler."
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – A man accused of plowing a car into a crowd of activists here – killing one person and injuring 19 – long sympathized with Nazi views and had stood with a group of white supremacists hours before Saturday's bloody crash.
The alleged driver, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old who traveled to Virginia from Ohio, had espoused extremist ideals at least since high school, according to Derek Weimer, a history teacher.
Weimer said he taught Fields during his junior and senior years at Randall K. Cooper High School in Kentucky. In a class called "America's Modern Wars," Weimer recalled that Fields wrote a deeply researched paper about the Nazi military during World War II.
"It was obvious that he had this fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler," Weimer said. "He had white supremacist views. He really believed in that stuff."
Fields's research project into the Nazi military was well written, Weimer said, but it appeared to be a "big lovefest for the German military and the Waffen-SS."
As a teacher, Weimer said he highlighted historical facts, not just opinion, in an unsuccessful attempt to steer Fields away from his infatuation with the Nazis.
"This was something that was growing in him," Weimer said. "I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country."
By the weekend's finish, Fields had become the face of one of the ugliest days in recent American history. After marching through the University of Virginia's campus carrying torches and spewing hate Friday night, hundreds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK members gathered in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday to protest the removal of a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee. As they waved Confederate flags and screamed racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs, the protesters – almost all white and male – were met with fierce resistance from activists who had come to stop them.
"No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!" they chanted, holding "Black Lives Matter" signs and placards calling for equality and love.
Who threw the first punch or launched the first rock was, it seemed, impossible to say, but by midmorning, fists and faces had been bloodied. Members of both sides wielded sticks and shields. In one of the most intense confrontations, a group of white supremacists charged into a line of activists, swinging clubs and bashing bodies. The activists fought back, tossing balloons filled with paint and spraying stinging chemicals into the faces of their adversaries.
When the chaos subsided late Saturday, a young woman and two state police officers, who had crashed in a helicopter, were dead, and many more were hurt. As of Saturday evening, the car's impact had left five people in critical condition and another 14 injured at the University of Virginia Medical Center. By Sunday, 10 were in good condition and nine had been discharged. At least a dozen more were treated after being injured in street brawls.
On Sunday, President Trump continued to receive sharp criticism, even from members of his own party, for failing to directly condemn white supremacists – who, in turn, praised him for not doing so. Meanwhile, thousands of people were expected to gather at vigils in Charlottesville, Washington and beyond Sunday night. Their messages focused largely on healing, but many people who had witnessed Saturday's most terrifying moment, either in person or on video, were struggling to move on.
A viral recording captured the scene: A sedan and a minivan rolled to a stop in a road packed with activists. Suddenly, a 2010 Dodge Challenger smashed into the back of the sedan, shoving tons of metal into the crowd as bodies were launched through the air. The Dodge then rapidly reversed, hitting yet more people.
Fields, now the subject of a federal civil rights investigation, was arrested shortly after and charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and another count related to the hit-and-run, police said. He is being held without bail and is scheduled for a Monday arraignment.
Brian Moran, Virginia secretary of public safety, said this of Fields: "He was a terrorist to do what he did."
Fields last lived in Maumee, Ohio, about 15 miles southwest of Toledo, records show. Both family and acquaintances described him as quiet and, often, solitary.
His father was killed by a drunk driver five months before the boy's birth, according to an uncle who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Fields's dad left him money that the uncle kept in a trust until Fields reached adulthood.
"When he turned 18, he demanded his money, and that was the last I had any contact with him," the uncle said.
Fields, he said, grew up mostly in Northern Kentucky, where he'd been raised by a single mother, Samantha Bloom, who was a paraplegic. The uncle, who saw Fields mostly at family gatherings, described his nephew as "not really friendly, more subdued."
Fields joined the Army in late summer 2015, but remained on active duty for less than four months, according to online records from the Department of Defense. It's unclear why he served so briefly.
"The what-ifs," the uncle said. "What could've been – you can't answer questions like that. There's no way of knowing if his life would have been different if his father had been around."
Fields's mother told the Associated Press on Saturday that she didn't talk to him about his political views. He'd mentioned to her that he was going to a rally, but Bloom said they never discussed the details.
"I didn't know it was white supremacists," she said. "I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump's not a supremacist."
Saturday's horror was just the latest for her family. Aside from losing Fields' father in a crash, Bloom's parents died in a murder-suicide – 33 years ago this month – according to a pair of 1984 newspaper articles. After an argument, Marvin Bloom, a self-employed contractor, killed his wife, Judy, with a 12-gauge shotgun, then put the gun to his head. He was 42, and she was 37. Their daughter, Samantha Bloom, was 16.
Richard B. Spencer, a leader in the white supremacist movement who coined the term "alt-right," said he didn't know Fields but had been told he was a member of Vanguard America, which bills itself as the "Face of American Fascism." In a statement tweeted Saturday night, the group denied any connection to Fields.
In several photographs that circulated online, Fields was seen with the group while sporting its unofficial uniform. Like members, he wore a white polo shirt, baggy khakis and sunglasses, while holding a black shield that features a common Vanguard symbol.
"The shields seen do not denote membership, nor does the white shirt," the group said in its statement. "The shields were freely handed out to anyone in attendance."
Vanguard members did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.
Fields has been accused of killing Heather D. Heyer, 32, a Charlottesville resident who was there Saturday to stand against bigotry and hatred, her mother and friends said.
"She died for a reason," said Felicia Correa, a longtime friend. "I don't see any difference in her or a soldier who died in war. She, in a sense, died for her country. She was there standing up for what was right."
Killed in the helicopter crash on the outskirts of town were Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, the pilot, and H. Jay Cullen of Midlothian, a passenger, according to officials. State police said their Bell 407 chopper was assisting with the unrest in Charlottesville. Bates died one day before his 41st birthday; Cullen was 48.
"Jay Cullen had been flying me around for 3 ½ years," Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said. "Berke was part of my executive protection unit. He was part of my family. The man lived with me 24-7."
Bates had just called the governor Friday, the day before his death, to ask about sending a care package to McAuliffe's son, a Marine stationed overseas.
On Sunday morning, one day after McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, he and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam attended a service at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church. The governor brought the predominantly African-American congregation to its feet as he stood at the pulpit and condemned "the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who came to our state yesterday."
"You pretend you're patriots. You are not patriots," he said. "You are dividers."
Later Sunday, Jason Kessler, who had helped organized Saturday's rally, held a news conference near Charlottesville City Hall.
Police snipers stood on the roofs of the two adjacent buildings as they peered through binoculars and steadied their bolt-action rifles on tripods. A cordon of police officers dressed in riot gear waited nearby.
Before Kessler even began to talk, counterprotesters shouted him down.
"Murderer," they screamed.
Kessler, dressed in a blazer, tried to speak into the TV microphones, but reporters huddled close by couldn't hear him. The noise from the crowd of about 100 demonstrators was overwhelming.
Finally, a few of them broke through the line of reporters and headed toward Kessler. As one extended his middle finger and another lunged at Kessler, police rushed him into City Hall.
Twenty minutes later, riot police formed a line around an exit where Kessler was expected to leave. Then, suddenly, he sprinted out a door around the side of the building and lunged into the back of a marked police SUV, which sped away.
A single activist chased after him.
"Shame! Shame! Shame!" he yelled, as the car carrying the white nationalist disappeared from view.
The Washington Post's Joe Heim, Ellie Silverman, Jack Gillum, Jim Higdon and Steve Friess contributed to this report.