CHARLOTTESVILLE — Hayden Calhoun and his girlfriend, Sarah Bolstad, met James A. Fields Jr. just before the fatal crash that would haunt this city.
The couple drove from the Richmond area on the morning of Aug. 12, 2017, to attend the “Unite the Right” rally. They said they met Fields, 21, and another man that afternoon, after chaos had erupted downtown between white supremacists and counterprotesters, a state of emergency had been declared, and the rally had been canceled before it was scheduled to begin.
Calhoun later decided to go home, he said, and Fields drove the couple back to their car. That was the last time they saw Fields — until his picture dominated the news, they said. At first, the couple didn’t think the man they met was the person accused of driving his car at high speed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several others. Both said Fields seemed normal and calm, even inviting them to lunch that afternoon.
“He didn’t seem angry,” Bolstad testified during the second week of Fields’s first-degree murder trial in Charlottesville Circuit Court, just blocks from where Heyer was killed. She added later: “He didn’t seem like the kind of person who would do that.”
Calhoun testified he went to Charlottesville because he wanted to hear from the “Unite the Right” speakers; Bolstad said she traveled with her boyfriend but would not have gone on her own. Both said they were not part of any group.
Calhoun’s and Bolstad’s accounts on Wednesday are the first indication of what Fields’s demeanor might have been shortly before Heyer was killed. Defense attorneys called them to the stand as they try to convince jurors that Fields did not travel to Charlottesville that summer day with the intention of killing or harming anyone. Fields, attorneys told jurors last week, acted out of fear of the counterprotesters and believed he needed to defend himself.
Prosecutors have painted a very different picture of Fields.
They said he was enraged when he drove more than 500 miles from his apartment in Ohio — and chose to act on that anger by ramming his two-door muscle car into the crowd of counterprotesters. Prosecutors have presented several pieces of evidence, including text messages between Fields and his mother, to show what they contend was an intent to cause harm. After he told his mother that he planned to attend the rally, she told him to be careful, according to the text exchange.
“We’re not the one who need to be careful,” he replied in a text the day before the rally. He added an attachment: a meme of Adolf Hitler. Acquaintances of Fields have said he had embraced the Nazi dictator’s ideologies of blood purity and anti-communism.
The image of Hitler “implies both aggression and violent intent” toward the counterprotesters whom Fields saw as his political and ideological enemies, prosecutors argued in court records.
Virginia State Trooper Clifford Thomas, a crash reconstruction expert, also testified Wednesday, saying Fields’s 2010 Dodge Challenger was traveling at 28 mph as he drove toward the counterprotesters at 4th and Water streets at this city’s downtown mall. It then crashed into a stationary Toyota Camry, causing that car to lunge forward at 17 mph, Clifford testified.
The maximum speed on Charlottesville’s city streets is 25 mph, unless posted otherwise. Traffic at the mall, which is lined with restaurants, offices and boutiques, is usually slower.
Absent a first-degree murder conviction, which requires an intent to kill, a jury could find Fields guilty of second-degree murder, punishable by up to 40 years in prison. Fields is also facing five counts of aggravated malicious wounding and three counts of malicious wounding related to eight of the 35 people who were injured.
Calhoun and Bolstad testified that they ran into Fields and another man near McIntire Park. Rallygoers had converged there after fights erupted at Emancipation Park, where organizers of “Unite the Right” had originally planned to gather for the rally. But a dispersal order had been issued, and right-wing groups began to leave.
They found out later that Fields was the suspect in Heyer’s death, the couple testified. They then contacted the FBI field office in Richmond.
Under cross-examination by prosecutors, Bolstad acknowledged that she had not met Fields before the rally, and that she and Calhoun spent only an hour with him.
Philip Depue, a digital forensic scientist consulted by the defense, testified that at 1:39 p.m. that day, just minutes before the crash, Fields looked up directions to Maumee, Ohio, where he lives, using a navigation application on his Samsung Galaxy phone. Under cross-examination by prosecutors, Depue said that his analysis of Fields’s phone does not show where he actually went, or what route he took.