A Virginia judge on Monday denied bond for a man accused of killing a woman by plowing his car into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in Virginia, keeping him behind bars as the Justice Department decides whether to file federal charges.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the crime meets the definition of domestic terrorism, and promised to try to make a federal case, if possible, against James Alex Fields Jr. He already faces a second-degree murder charge in the death of Heather Heyer, 32.
As the 20-year-old made his first appearance in Charlottesville General District Court on Monday, details about his past, including an apparent fascination with Nazism, continued to emerge.
A former high school teacher said Mr. Fields was singled out as a teenager by officials at the Randall K. Cooper high school in Union, Kentucky, for his “deeply held, radical” convictions on race.
“Once you talked to James for a while, you would start to see that sympathy toward Nazism, that idolization of Hitler, that belief in white supremacy,” said Derek Weimer. “It would start to creep out.”
Additionally, police records indicate that Mr. Fields’ mother had previously filed complaints about him making threats and having violent outbursts.
Florence Police Department records show Samantha Bloom, Mr. Fields’ wheelchair-bound mother, told police in 2011 that her son threatened her by standing behind her wielding a 12-inch knife.
In another incident in 2010, Ms. Bloom said her son smacked her in the head and locked her in the bathroom after she told him to stop playing video games. Ms. Bloom told officers that Mr. Fields was on medication to control his temper.
Mr. Fields traveled from his Ohio home to Charlottesville on a weekend when white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis gathered in the college town as part of a “pro-white” demonstration to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a city park. Police broke up the event after brawls erupted between white nationalists and counterprotesters, who condemned the event as racist.
Hours later a car sped down a street full of protesters, striking several before slamming into the back of a stopped vehicle. The car fled the scene, roaring away from the crash in reverse.
Earlier in the day Mr. Fields was photographed carrying a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the white nationalist groups participating in the rally. The group denied any association with him, saying the shields were being given out to many rally participants.
The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the Charlottesville incident. A Department of Justice official familiar with the investigation said it is not limited to the driver, and could include anyone found to have been involved in planning the attack.
Mr. Sessions said Monday the incident “does meet the definition of domestic terrorism” under U.S. law.
“We are pursuing it in the Department of Justice in every way that we can make a case,” Mr. Sessions told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is unequivocally an unacceptable and evil attack that cannot be accepted in America.”
There is no specific domestic terrorism charge; instead, charges are brought against offenses such as material support for a terrorist group or the bombing of a government facility.
But acts of domestic terrorism are defined as those that “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States,” are intended to intimidate or coerce civilians or the government and occur within the U.S.
The Justice Department grappled with the same questions in the case of Dylann Roof, the white 23-year-old man who in 2015 gunned down nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Ultimately, the Justice Department did not file terrorism charges in his case, but federal prosecutors secured convictions on 33 hate crime charges. Roof was sentenced to death and later plead guilty to state murder charges.
Local authorities charged Mr. Fields with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run. He has been held in jail since being taken into custody Saturday shortly after the deadly crash, which injured 19.
Appearing in the courtroom via video monitor on Monday, Mr. Fields wore a black-and-white striped prison jail uniform. He answered questions with simple responses, telling the judge “no, sir” when he was asked if he had any ties to the Charlottesville community.
Judge Robert Downer said he’d appoint an attorney to represent Mr. Fields after the public defenders’ office informed the judge it could not represent him because a relative of someone who worked in the office was among those injured in Saturday’s protests.
The attorney he selected, Charles Weber, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Local authorities are still investigating other acts of violence that occurred over the weekend. Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said the department is setting up a hotline to enable people to report assaults or other criminal activity that occurred but may not have been reported during the hectic weekend.
Chief Thomas also outlined the difficulties law enforcement faced in keeping the peace during Saturday’s events, saying the rally attendees failed to follow their agreed-upon plan for entering the park. He said there were “mutually combative individuals” on both sides and that officers tried to keep the groups apart. But officers were “spread thin” once crowds at the park dispersed and began to move through the city.
⦁ This story is based in part on wire service reports.
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