Allison Reamer and Lauren Lindstrom, Block News Alliance
12:01 PM Aug 13, 2017
FLORENCE, Ky. — James Alex Fields Jr. expressed white-supremacy ideologies beginning in high school, but a former history teacher says educators did all they could to change the student’s way of thinking.
Derek Weimer, a former teacher at Randall K. Cooper High School in Union, Ky., who also taught Mr. Fields during his junior and senior years, said Sunday he saw such ideologies in conversations with the student, but he said he never thought it would turn violent.
Mr. Weimer, a social studies teacher, told The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, he always tried to relate historical or current events to the conversation.
“I felt it my mission to explain how vile the Nazis were,” the teacher said.
Mr. Fields is accused of being the driver of a car that crashed into a crowd of counterprotesters Saturday at a white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va. One person was killed and at least 19 were injured. 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.
Police charged Mr. Fields with second-degree murder and other counts for allegedly driving his silver Dodge Challenger through a crowd of protesters.
The 20-year-old Mr. 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 Daily Stormer, a leading white nationalist website that promoted the Charlottesville event, pledged on social media to organize future events that would be “bigger than Charlottesville.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced late Saturday that federal authorities would pursue a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash.
Mr. Weimer spoke out Sunday because he wants others to be more vigilant, particularly with today’s political environment.
When Mr. Weimer learned about the incident in Virginia and that a former student was involved, he said, he felt a sense of responsibility.
“My first feeling: I failed, we failed,” he said.
Mr. Weimer recalled that school officials had singled out Mr. 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.
A research project by Mr. Fields into the Nazi military was well written, Mr. Weimer said, but it appeared to be a “big lovefest for the German military and the Waffen-SS.”
Mr. Weimer said Mr. 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. Mr. Weimer said Mr. Fields was a big Trump supporter because of what he believed to be now-President Donald Trump’s views on race. Trump’s proposal to build a border wall with Mexico was particularly appealing to Mr. Fields, Mr. Weimer said. Mr. Fields also admired the Confederacy for its military prowess, he said, though they never spoke about slavery.
As a senior, Mr. Fields wanted to join the army, and Mr. Weimer, a former officer in the Ohio National Guard, guided him through the process of applying, he said, believing that the military would expose Mr. Fields to people of different races and backgrounds and help him dispel his white supremacist views. But Mr. Fields was ultimately turned down, which was a big blow, Mr. Weimer said.
Military records show Mr. Fields entered the Army on Aug. 18, 2015, but his active duty ended just months later, on Dec. 11.
The Army said Mr. Fields was released from active duty in December 2015 “due to a failure to meet training standards.”
Mr. Weimer said he lost contact with Mr. Fields after he graduated.
Mr. Fields also confided that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was younger and had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication, Mr. Weimer said in an interview with The Associated Press.
During conversations, radical views would come up in conversations about daily political topics, military topics, or “what if” scenarios, Mr. Weimer said. That included “what if Hitler would have defeated the Russians, how would that have changed the war,” the teacher said.
Mr. Weimer said other teachers had expressed similar concerns to him about Mr. Fields after school projects. During Mr. Fields’ senior year, Mr. Weimer said he thought the student’s radical views began to change.
Mr. Weimer said Mr. Fields was an average student who did not have behavior problems in school.
Mr. Fields had a group of friends in one of Mr. Weimer’s classes, though the teacher said he did not believe the others shared the same ideologies.
A classmate, Sam Gormlay, 20, of Florence, Ky., said Mr. Fields kept to himself. The two had attended school together since elementary school, but they were in different friend groups.
“I didn’t know him as a high schooler that well,” he said. “I know he was a little out there. He was a little eccentric.”
Mike Wilson, principal of Randall K. Cooper High School, confirmed in an email to The Blade that Mr. Fields was a 2015 graduate and recalled he was “a quiet and reserved student.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those in Charlottesville, Virginia,” he wrote. “Hatred and violence is never a viable solution to any problem. As educators, we are always using teachable moments and providing guidance to students to create college, career and life ready students to make good and sound choices.”
Mr. Fields, an uncle said, grew up mostly in Northern Kentucky, where he’d been raised by a single mother, Samantha Bloom, who had paraplegia. The uncle, who saw Mr. Fields mostly at family gatherings, described his nephew as “not really friendly, more subdued.”
Mr. Fields’ father died before he was born, an aunt, Pam Fields, said in an interview Sunday.
Mr. Fields last lived in Maumee, Ohio, about 15 miles southwest of Toledo, records show.
FBI agents have interviewed Mr. Fields’ mother, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said Sunday morning.
The FBI contacted Sheriff Tharp to let him know they “were taking the lead in this,” he said. “They contacted me to let me know they were in the area, that they were going to talk to the mother, which they already have. What the conversation was, I don’t know.”
Ms. Bloom, 49, told reporters at her Monclova Township apartment Saturday night that her son had moved recently to his own residence in Maumee but did not say exactly where.
She knew her son had gone to an “alt-right” rally but said she was unaware he’d been arrested.
“I try to stay out of his political views,” she said Saturday. “I don’t get too involved.”
Vanguard America denied by Twitter on Saturday that Mr. Fields was a member.
“The driver of the vehicle that hit counter protesters today was, in no way, a member of Vanguard America,” the post read in part. “The shields seen do not denote membership nor does the white shirt. The shields were freely handed out to anyone in attendance.”
Vanguard America says it is “the face of American fascism.” Its manifesto calls for a “nation exclusively for the White American peoples.”
It is a more extreme splinter faction of American Vanguard, a group that embraces a “full-throated national socialist ideology,” said Keegan Hankes, an analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“In the case of this guy, I don’t know enough to call him a member, but he showed quite a bit of intention to stand with these people and hold their symbols,” he said of Mr. Fields.
Though a Facebook profile bearing Mr. Fields’ name and photos that appeared to be of him was removed as of Sunday, screenshots of the page were shared online.
Among the photos is what the law center describes as an “othala rune.”
The rune, Mr. Hankes said, is used by various right-wing groups, including on the flag of the National Socialist Movement.
“This is directly pointing to a time when it was used for fascist authority,” he said of the symbol.
The scene was quiet outside Ms. Bloom’s home as Lucas County sheriff’s deputies Sunday morning blocked access to reporters and other nonresidents into the private drive at the community where she lives.
Maria Stanton, vice president of property operations for Independence, Ohio-based Redwood Living Inc., said the company was cooperating.
“Our focus is to take care of our residents, that’s first and foremost,” she said. “We certainly want to cooperate in any way and work with local law enforcement.”
Kim Schwarting, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cleveland office, could not confirm that agents had spoken with Ms. Bloom. The agency’s office in Richmond, Va., was heading the inquiry, she said.
“Obviously the guy lives here, so we’ll be assisting in any way we can assist,” she said.
Other than a May 25 citation for driving on expired plates that Mr. Fields received in Maumee, neither the sheriff’s office nor Maumee police have had any contacts with him.
Sheriff Tharp and Maumee police Sgt. Thomas Hixon said their departments were unaware of any active area white supremacist-type groups and said Mr. Fields was not on any watch list to their knowledge.
“I can’t imagine that there would be something like that going on that we wouldn’t know about,” Sgt. Hixon said. “I’m sure if there was anything like that we’d want all of our officers to be aware of it.”
Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Allison Reamer and Lauren Lindstrom are reporters for The Blade. Blade staff writer Jennifer Feehan, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times contributed.