FLORENCE, Ky. (AP) — The young man accused of plowing a car into a crowd of people protesting a white supremacist rally was fascinated with Nazism, idolized Adolf Hitler, and had been singled out by school officials in the 9th grade for his “deeply held, radical” convictions on race, a former high school teacher said Sunday.
James Alex Fields Jr. also confided that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was younger and had been prescribed an anti-psychotic medication, Derek Weimer said in an interview with The Associated Press.
In high school, Fields was an “average” student, but with a keen interest in military history, Hitler, and Nazi Germany, said Weimer, who said he was Fields’ social studies teacher at Randall K. Cooper high school in Union, Kentucky, in Fields’ junior and senior years.
“Once you talked to James for a while, you would start to see that sympathy towards Nazism, that idolization of Hitler, that belief in white supremacy,” Weimer said. “It would start to creep out.”
Police charged Fields with second-degree murder and other counts for allegedly driving his silver Dodge Challenger through a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, killing a 32-year-old woman and wounding at least 19 other people. A Virginia State Police helicopter deployed in a large-scale police response to the violence then crashed into the woods outside of town and both troopers on board died.
The 20-year-old Fields had been photographed hours earlier carrying the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that organized the “take America back” campaign in protest of the removal of a Confederate statue. The group on Sunday denied any association with the suspect, even as a separate hate group that organized Saturday’s rally pledged on social media to organize future events that would be “bigger than Charlottesville.”
The mayor of Charlottesville, political leaders of all political stripes, and activists and community organizers around the country planned rallies, vigils and education campaigns to combat the hate groups. They also urged President Donald Trump to forcefully denounce the organizations, some of which specifically cited Trump’s election after a campaign of racially charged rhetoric as validation of their beliefs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced late Saturday that federal authorities would pursue a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash.
Weimer recalled that school officials had singled out Fields when he was in 9th grade for his political beliefs and “deeply held, radical” convictions on race and Nazism.
“It was a known issue,” he said.
Weimer said Fields left school for a while, and when he came back he was quieter about politics until his senior year, when politicians started to declare their candidacy for the 2016 presidential race. Weimer said Fields was a big Trump supporter because of what he believed to be Trump’s views on race. Trump’s proposal to build a border wall with Mexico was particularly appealing to Fields, Weimer said. Fields also admired the Confederacy for its military prowess, he said, though they never spoke about slavery.
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’ mother, Samantha Bloom, told the AP late Saturday that she knew her son was going to Virginia for a political rally, but she had no idea it involved white supremacists.
“I just told him to be careful,” she said, adding she warned him that if there were protests “to make sure he’s doing it peacefully.”
“I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump’s not a white supremacist,” said Bloom, speaking from the condominium in Maumee, Ohio, where she had lived with her son until he moved out a few months ago.
In photos taken before the rally, Fields was shown standing Saturday with a half-dozen other men, all wearing the Vanguard America uniform of khakis and white polo shirts. The men held white shields with Vanguard America’s black-and-white logo of two crossed axes. The Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee was in the background.
The photo was taken about 10:30 a.m. Saturday just hours before authorities say Fields crashed his car into the crowd at 1:42 p.m. The Anti-Defamation League says Vanguard America believes the U.S. is an exclusively white nation, and uses propaganda to recruit young white men online and on college campuses.
In a Twitter post, the group said it had handed out the shields “to anyone in attendance who wanted them,” and denied Fields was a member. “All our members are safe an (sic) accounted for, with no arrests or charges.”
In blog posts after the violence, the Daily Stormer, a leading white nationalist website that promoted the Charlottesville event, pledged to hold more events “soon.”
“We are going to start doing this nonstop,” the post said. “We are going to go bigger than Charlottesville. We are going to go huge.”
Saturday’s chaos erupted as neo-Nazis, skinheads, Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacist groups arrived for the rally. Counter-protesters were also on hand, and the two sides clashed, with people throwing punches, hurling water bottles and unleashing chemical sprays. Officials have not provided a crowd estimate but it appeared to number well over 1,000.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, police in riot gear ordered people out of the streets, and helicopters circled overhead. Then, as the counter-protesters marched a few blocks from the statue, the Dodge Challenger tore into the crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer as she was crossing the street.
Hours later, the helicopter crashed, killing two state police troopers, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, one day shy of his 41st birthday.
Trump criticized the violence in a tweet Saturday, followed by a news conference and a call for “a swift restoration of law and order.”
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” he said.
The “on many sides” ending of his statement drew the ire of his critics, who said he failed to specifically denounce white supremacy and equated those who came to protest racism with the white supremacists.
Trump “needs to come out stronger” against the actions of white supremacists, McAuliffe told reporters at the First Baptist Church in Charlottesville on Sunday. “They are Nazis and they are here to hurt American citizens, and he needs to call them out for what they are, no question.”
This story has been corrected to show that Derek Weimer said that James Alex Fields Jr. was a big Trump supporter, not that Weimer was.