Amid tears, anger and calls for reconciliation after the weekend violence in Virginia, new details emerged about the woman fatally struck and the man accused of mowing her down during clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters.
When the chaos subsided late Saturday, the young woman and two state police officers, who had crashed in a helicopter being used to monitor the protests, were dead, and many more were hurt.
The alleged driver, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old who traveled to Virginia from Ohio, had become, by the weekend’s finish, the face of one of the ugliest days in recent American history.
Fields 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.”
“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.”
As a senior, Fields wanted to join the army, and Weimer, a former officer in the Ohio National Guard, guided him through the process of applying, he said, believing that the military would expose Fields to people of different races and backgrounds and help him dispel his white supremacist views.
But Fields was ultimately turned down, which was a big blow, Weimer said. Weimer said he lost contact with Fields after he graduated and was surprised to hear reports that Fields had enlisted in the army.
“The Army can confirm that James Alex Fields reported for basic military training in August of 2015, said Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson. “He was, however, released from active duty due to a failure to meet training standards in December of 2015,” she said.
Fields’ rampage came on a day after hundreds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK members marched through the University of Virginia’s campus carrying torches and spewing hate. They gathered Saturday in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday to protest the removal of a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee.
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. As a child, said a longtime friend, Heyer, who was white, had stood up for people being picked on at school or on the bus. She never feared fighting for what she believed in.
“She died for a reason,” said Felicia Correa, who is biracial. “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.”
A viral recording had 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 of Fields: “He was a terrorist to do what he did.”
Richard 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.
Also on Saturday, two state police officers died when their helicopter crashed on the outskirts of town. Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, Va., was the pilot, and H. Jay Cullen of Midlothian, Va., was a passenger, according to officials. State police said their Bell 407 helicopter was assisting with the unrest in Charlottesville. Bates died one day before his 41st birthday; Cullen was 48.
On Sunday morning, one day after Virginia Gov. Terry 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. You are dividers,” he said, then later, his voice roaring: “Shame on you!”
Protesters decrying hatred and racism converged around the country on Sunday. Thousands of people gathered at vigils in Charlottesville, Washington, New York City 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.
The gatherings spanned from a planned march to President Donald Trump’s home in New York to a candlelight vigil in Florida. In Seattle, police made arrests and confiscated weapons as Trump supporters and counter-protesters converged downtown.
Some focused on showing support for the people whom white supremacists’ condemn. Other demonstrations were pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments, the issue that initially prompted white nationalists to gather in anger this weekend in Charlottesville. Still other gatherings aimed to denounce fascism and a presidential administration that organizers feel has let white supremacists feel empowered.
At the church service, McAuliffe said he was close to both of the officers who had died.
“Jay Cullen had been flying me around for 3 ½ years,” he said. “Berke was part of my executive protection unit. He was part of my family. The man lived with me 24-7.”
Their deaths, he said, had enraged him, but he’d tried to move beyond that emotion and asked the congregation to do the same.
“Let us use today to reach out to our fellow citizens, put your hand out to help them,” he said. “Let us show these people that we are bigger than them, we are stronger than them.”
Also on Sunday, blogger Jason Kessler, who organized Saturday’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, was chased away from a news conference and had to be escorted by law enforcement into a police station to avoid protesters.
“That hate that you hear around you, that is the anti-white hate,” Kessler said at his outdoor news conference in downtown Charlottesville.
He posted a video on social media saying police and city officials were responsible for the violence at Saturday’s rally, and criticized them for how they handled Sunday’s news conference.