CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — 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 accused driver, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, espoused Nazi ideals in high school, according to Derek Weimer, a history teacher.
Weimer said that he taught Fields during his junior and senior years at Randall K. Cooper High School in Kentucky. During a class called America’s Modern Wars, Weimer said 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.”
Weimer said that Fields’ research project into the Nazi military was well-written but appeared to be a “big lovefest for the German military and the Waffen SS.”
Weimer said that as a teacher he unsuccessfully attempted to steer Fields away from his Nazi infatuation by using historical examples and facts.
“When you’re a teacher and you see one of your former students do this, it’s a nightmare scenario,” Weimer said. “This was something that was growing in him. 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.”
Video recorded at the scene of the crash shows the 2010 Dodge Challenger accelerating into crowds on a pedestrian mall, sending bodies flying — and then reversing at high speed, hitting yet more people. Witnesses said the street was filled with people opposed to the white nationalists, who had come to town bearing Confederate flags and anti-Semitic epithets.
Fields was arrested and charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of hit-and-run attended failure to stop with injury, police said. He is being held without bail and is scheduled to be arraigned Monday, Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail Superintendent Martin Kumer said.
Brian Moran, Virginia secretary of public safety, said of Fields, “He was a terrorist to do what he did.”
The FBI field office in Richmond and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Virginia said late Saturday that they have opened a civil rights investigation into the deadly car crash.
“The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”
Records show Fields last lived in Maumee, Ohio, about 15 miles southwest of Toledo.
Fields’ father was killed by a drunken driver a few months before the boy’s birth, according to an uncle who spoke on the condition of anonymity. His father 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 who was a paraplegic. The uncle, who saw Fields mostly at family gatherings, described his nephew as “not really friendly, more subdued.”
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.
In several images that circulated online, he was photographed with the group while wearing its unofficial uniform. Like members, he was dressed in a white polo, 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.
As of Saturday evening, the crash had left five people in critical condition and another 14 injured, according to a spokeswoman at the University of Virginia Medical Center, where all of the wounded were being treated. City officials said an additional 14 had been hurt in street brawls.
Also on Saturday, two state police officers died when their helicopter crashed on the outskirts of town. Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, Virginia, was the pilot, and H. Jay Cullen of Midlothian, Virginia, 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!”
Police identified the woman killed by the car as Heather D. Heyer, 32, a Charlottesville resident.
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.”
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 3½ 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.”
On Saturday, police had evacuated a downtown park as rally-goers 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 Mayor Michael Signer said in a tweet. “I urge all people of good will — go home.”
Elected leaders in Virginia and elsewhere urged peace, blasting the white supremacist views on display in Charlottesville as ugly.
In brief remarks at a Saturday news conference in New Jersey to discuss veterans’ health care, President Donald 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.
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 Gen. 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 University of Virginia 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 rally-goers 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 goddamn thing,” said David Copper, 70, of Staunton, Virginia.
State Rep. 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 rally-goers had made their way to a larger park 2 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 rally-goers 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 rally-goers 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 rally-goers 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.”
Washington Post writers Jack Gillum and Sarah Larimer contributed to this report.