CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A man accused of ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia was denied bond Monday after the public defender's office said it couldn't represent him and the judge was forced to find a local attorney to fill in.
James Alex Fields Jr. was not present in the courtroom but appeared via video monitor dressed in a black-and-white striped uniform. Seated, he answered questions from the judge with simple responses of "Yes, sir" when asked if he understood what was being explained to him. Fields also replied "No, sir" when asked if he had ties to the community of Charlottesville.
Judge Robert Downer set an Aug. 25 hearing for the 20-year-old Fields, who has been charged with second-degree murder and other counts.
Downer said the public defenders' office informed him it could not represent Fields because a relative of someone in the office was injured in Saturday's protest. He appointed local attorney Charles Weber to represent him. Weber did not immediately respond to telephone messages and no one answered the door at his office on Monday.
Fields is charged in the death of Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville, who died after a car that police say Fields was driving slammed into a crowd of people protesting the nationalist rally Saturday. Fields was arrested shortly afterward and taken into custody.
Fields was fascinated with Nazism, idolized Adolf Hitler, and had been singled out in the 9th grade by officials at the Randall K. Cooper high school in Union, Kentucky, for his "deeply held, radical" convictions on race, his former high school teacher Derek Weimer said Sunday.
Keegan McGrath, 18, who said he was roommates with Fields on a class trip to Europe in 2015, said Fields referred to Germany as "the Fatherland," had no interest in being in France, and refused to interact with the French.
"He just really laid on about the French being lower than us and inferior to us," McGrath told the AP on Monday.
McGrath challenged Fields on his beliefs, and the animosity between them grew so heated that it came to a boil at dinner on their second day. He said he went home after three or four days because he said he couldn't handle being in a room with Fields.
The incident shocked McGrath because he had been in German class with Fields for two unremarkable years.
"He was just a normal dude" most of the time, although he occasionally made "dark" jokes that put his class on edge, including one "off-hand joke" about the Holocaust, McGrath said.
McGrath said that Fields wasn't ostracized and doesn't believe Fields deserves sympathy.
"He had friends, he had people who would chat with him, it wasn't like he was an outcast."
Weimer described Fields as an "average" student, but with a keen interest in military history, Hitler, and Nazi Germany.
"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," Weimer said. "It would start to creep out."
Fields also confided that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was younger and had been prescribed an anti-psychotic medication, Weimer said.
Police say Fields drove his silver Dodge Challenger into the crowd in Charlottesville on Saturday, killing Heyer and wounding 19 other people. A Virginia State Police helicopter deployed in a large-scale police response to the violence later crashed into the woods outside of town and both troopers on board died.
Fields had been photographed hours earlier with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that took part in the "take America back" campaign to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. The group on Sunday denied any association with the suspect.
Meanwhile, a message posted Saturday night on a leading neo-Nazi website called The Daily Stormer promised 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 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.
McGrath said Fields wanted to become a tank commander in the Army.
Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson said Fields reported for basic military training in August 2015, but was released from active duty four months later "due to a failure to meet training standards."