Alleged driver of car that plowed into Charlottesville crowd, killing woman, was a Nazi sympathizer, former teacher says

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — An explosion of violence turned deadly in this normally bucolic university town on Saturday as hundreds of white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters in the streets, and a car — allegedly driven by a young man who had long sympathized with Nazi views — plowed into crowds, killing one person and leaving 19 injured.

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 Donald 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.

Inseveral 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.

On Saturday, police had evacuated a downtown park as rallygoers and counterprotesters traded blows and hurled bottles and chemical irritants at one another, putting an end to the noon rally before it officially began.

Despite the decision to quash the rally, clashes continued on side streets and throughout downtown, including the pedestrian mall at Water and Fourth streets where the Challenger slammed into counterprotesters and two other cars in the early afternoon, sending bystanders running and screaming.

“I am heartbroken that a life has been lost here,” Charlottesville Democratic Mayor Michael Signer said in a tweet. “I urge all people of good will — go home.”

Leaders in Virginia and elsewhere urged peace, blasting the white supremacist views on display in Charlottesville as ugly.

University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds issued a statement Sunday expressing support for the University of Virginia, where tensions between opposing protesters boiled over Saturday.

“We are sickened by this senseless violence and by the racist, white supremacist and Neo-Nazi beliefs on display,” Bounds said. “These disgusting beliefs violate the most basic principles of decency and our shared humanity.”

But President Donald Trump, known for his rapid-fire tweets, remained silent throughout the morning. It was after 1 p.m. when he weighed in, writing on Twitter: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”

In brief remarks at a late-afternoon news conference in New Jersey to discuss veterans’ health care, Trump said he was following the events in Charlottesville closely. “The hate and the division must stop and must stop right now,” Trump said, without specifically mentioning white nationalists or their views. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a Trump supporter who was in Charlottesville on Saturday, quickly replied. “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,” he wrote.

Asked by a reporter in New Jersey whether he wanted the support of white nationalists, dozens of whom wore red Make America Great Again hats during the Charlottesville riots, Trump did not respond.

Even as crowds began to thin Saturday afternoon, the town remained unsettled and on edge. Onlookers were deeply shaken at the pedestrian mall, where ambulances had arrived to treat those injured by the car.

Chan Williams, 22, was among the counterprotesters in the street, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” The marchers blocked traffic, but Williams said drivers weren’t annoyed. Instead, she said, they waved or honked in support.

So when she heard a car engine rev up and saw the people in front of her dodging a moving car, she didn’t know what to think.

“I saw the car hit bodies, legs in the air,” she said. “You try to grab the people closest to you and take shelter.”

Williams and friend George Halliday ducked into a shop with an open door and called their mothers. An hour later, the two were still visibly upset.

“I just saw shoes on the road,” Halliday, 20, said. “It all happened in two seconds.”

Saturday’s Unite the Right rally was meant to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The city of Charlottesville voted to remove the statue earlier this year, but it remains in Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, pending a judge’s ruling expected later this month.

Tensions began to escalate Friday night as hundreds of white nationalists marched through the U-Va.’ s campus, chanting “White lives matter,” “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”

They were met by counterprotesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university. One counterprotester apparently deployed a chemical spray, which sent about a dozen rallygoers seeking medical assistance.

On Saturday morning, people in combat gear — some wearing bicycle and motorcycle helmets and carrying clubs, sticks and makeshift shields — fought one another on downtown streets, with little apparent police interference. Both sides sprayed chemical irritants and hurled plastic bottles through the air.

A large contingent of Charlottesville police officers and Virginia State Police troopers in riot gear were stationed on side streets and at nearby barricades but did nothing to break up the melee until about 11:40 a.m. Using megaphones, police then declared an unlawful assembly and gave a five-minute warning to leave Emancipation Park.

“The worst part is that people got hurt and the police stood by and didn’t do a g—— thing,” said David Copper, 70, of Staunton, Va.

State Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, minority leader of Virginia’s House, praised the response by Charlottesville and state police.

Asked why police did not act sooner to intervene as violence unfolded, Toscano said he could not comment. “But they trained very hard for this, and it might have been that they were waiting for a more effective time to get people out” of Emancipation Park, he said.

By early afternoon, hundreds of rallygoers had made their way to a larger park two miles to the north. Duke, speaking to the crowd, said that European Americans are “being ethnically cleansed within our own nation” and called Saturday’s events “the first step toward taking America back.”

Spencer also addressed the group, urging people to disperse. But he promised they would return for a future demonstration, blaming Saturday’s violence on counterprotesters.

In an interview, Spencer said he was “beyond outraged” the police had declared the planned rally an “unlawful assembly.”

“I never before thought that I would have my country cracking down on me and on free speech,” he said. “We were lawfully and peacefully assembled. We came in peace, and the state cracked down.”

He said that counterprotesters attacked rallygoers but also acknowledged that “maybe someone threw a first punch on our side. Maybe that happened. I obviously didn’t see everything.”

By 11 a.m., several fully armed militias and hundreds of right-wing rallygoers had poured into the small downtown park that was to be the site of the rally.

Counterprotesters held “Black Lives Matter” signs and placards expressing support for equality and love as they faced rallygoers who waved Confederate flags and posters that said “the Goyim know,” referring to non-Jewish people, and “the Jewish media is going down.”

“No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” the counterprotesters chanted.

“Too late, f—–s!” a man yelled back at them.

Michael Von Kotch, a Pennsylvania resident who called himself a Nazi, said the rally made him “proud to be white.”

He said that he’s long held white supremacist views and that Trump’s election has “emboldened” him and the members of his own Nazi group.

“We are assembled to defend our history, our heritage and to protect our race to the last man,” Von Kotch said, wearing a protective helmet and sporting a wooden shield and a broken pool cue. “We came here to stand up for the white race.”

Naundi Cook, 23, who is black, said that she came to Saturday’s counterprotests to “support my people” but that she’s never seen something like this before.

When violence broke out, she started shaking and got goose bumps.

“I’ve seen people walking around with tear gas all over their face, all over their clothes. People getting Maced, fighting,” she said. “I didn’t want to be next.”

Cook said she couldn’t sit back and watch white nationalists descend on her town. She has a 3-year-old daughter to stand up for, she said.

“Right now, I’m not sad,” she said once the protests dispersed. “I’m a little more empowered. All these people and support, I feel like we’re on top right now because of all the support that we have.”

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