CHARLOTTESVILLE — A self-professed neo-Nazi who allegedly used his car as a lethal weapon, killing a woman and injuring 35 other people during a chaotic demonstration by white supremacists here in August, was charged with first-degree murder Thursday after being jailed for the past four months on a lesser homicide charge.
James Alex Fields Jr., 20, who was arrested Aug. 12 in the death of 32-year-old counterprotester Heather D. Heyer, had been charged with second-degree murder, punishable by five to 40 years in prison. But moments after Fields entered a courtroom Thursday for a preliminary hearing — his first extended appearance before a judge since the violent demonstration — prosecutor Joe Platania announced that the main charge against him had been upgraded to first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of 20 years to life behind bars.
Authorities had initially said that 19 people were injured, in addition to Heyer, when Fields allegedly rammed his 2010 Dodge Challenger into another vehicle on purpose on a crowded street. But testimony at the preliminary hearing revealed that there were many more victims. Besides first-degree murder, Fields, who lived in Ohio before his arrest, is charged with eight counts of "aggravated malicious wounding," meaning that at least eight of the 35 people who were hurt suffered what Virginia law describes as "permanent and significant physical impairment."
After hearing testimony Thursday from a Charlottesville police detective and watching video footage of Fields's car speeding into a downtown intersection where scores of counterprotesters had congregated, Judge Robert H. Downer Jr. of Charlottesville General District Court ruled that the state has enough evidence against Fields to warrant the case being presented to a grand jury next week. If the grand jury issues an indictment of Fields, the next step would be a trial.
The Aug. 12 incident — captured on video from numerous angles and viewed worldwide — occurred amid clashes involving hundreds of white supremacists and counterprotesters at a gathering billed by organizers as a "Unite the Right" rally, in the home town of the University of Virginia. Heyer's death climaxed a violent, day-long outpouring of racist hate. Organizers said the rally was meant to protest the city's planned removal of a public statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
In an eerie aspect of Thursday's hearing, the primary video that prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony showed in court was footage recorded from a Virginia State Police helicopter whose two crew members, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, were monitoring the demonstration. About three hours after the airborne officers witnessed Fields's alleged attack and followed his vehicle as it sped away, the helicopter crashed while Cullen and Bates were flying to another assignment, killing both men. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
The video shows counterprotesters gathered at Fourth and Water streets in downtown Charlottesville. A black pickup truck approaching the crowd pulled to the side of the road. A maroon van then stopped on the street in front of the crowd, and a Toyota Camry stopped behind the van. Fields's Dodge approached the Camry from behind at a moderate speed. It then backed up, traveling more than a block, before accelerating forward at a rapid clip, ramming into the back of the Camry. Heyer and numerous other people were standing near the vehicles, and the collision sent bodies flying.
In the helicopter, Cullen and Bates were astonished.
"Oh, s---!" one of them said.
"Holy crap!" said the other.
They followed the Dodge for several miles as it wound through Charlottesville streets, until police cars caught up with the fleeing suspect. Fields was hauled out of the driver's seat, dragged to a sidewalk and handcuffed. The entire sequence was recorded by the helicopter camera, with running commentary by Cullen and Bates just hours before they died.
Unlike second-degree murder, first-degree murder requires the element of premeditation. Authorities said video showing the Dodge backing up rapidly before it accelerated forward toward the crowd is evidence that the crash was intentional, prompting them to upgrade the main charge against Fields.
Another video, taken by a surveillance camera mounted on a building, did not show the collision but offered a close-up view of the Dodge. At the moment it sped forward, almost in a blur as it moved toward the crowd off camera, there were gasps in the courtroom from friends of Heyer and supporters of her family. Several were in tears. One man shouted an expletive as he abruptly stood and left the courtroom, prompting the judge to admonish spectators to remain quiet.
Fields, clad in a gray-striped jumpsuit from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, his wrists shackled, stared at the table in front him, showing no reaction. He had a long history of fascination with and admiration for the racist ideology and militarism of Nazi Germany, according to acquaintances in Kentucky, where he grew up, and in Ohio, where he moved as an adult.
On the witness stand, police detective Steven Young said investigators determined that Fields had traveled to Charlottesville alone from his home in Maumee, Ohio. Under questioning by defense lawyer Denise Lunsford, Young said investigators found no evidence that Fields was affiliated with any of the white supremacist groups that took part in the demonstration.
Lunsford asked Young whether it was true that her client, after his arrest, inquired about the well-being of the people in the crowd, asking, "Are they okay?"
Young said that Fields did ask about the victims and was told that one of them was dead.
"He did appear to be very shocked," Young said.
"Did he cry and sob?" Lunsford asked.
"Yes," the detective replied.