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The persistent crime that connects mass shooters and terror suspects: Domestic violence

James Alex Fields Jr., 20, is accused of driving his car into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Sarah Parnass, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post, Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post)

Before police in Virginia arrested a 20-year-old man they said plowed his car into a group of activists in Charlottesville over the weekend, killing one and injuring 19 others, the same man had come to the attention of law enforcement in another state. In 2010, police records show, the mother of James Alex Fields Jr. called 911 to report that her son had hit her and threatened to beat her. During another 911 call, made the following year, Fields’s mother said he was “very threatening toward her,” the dispatcher noted.

These calls have helped shed some light on Fields’s life before the chaos in Charlottesville on Saturday. They were also grimly familiar. With the revelation of his mother’s terrified calls, Fields became the latest man accused of a potential terrorist attack or a mass killing to have previously been accused of domestic violence.

Fields has been held in a Charlottesville jail about two miles from the crash scene where, police say, he sped his Dodge Charger at a group of counterprotesters rallying Saturday against white supremacists. A judge on Monday denied bail for Fields, who has been charged with second-degree murder, among other counts. Federal charges could also follow. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the car attack meets the definition of domestic terrorism, and the Justice Department launched a federal civil rights investigation into what happened, dispatching counterterrorism prosecutors and counterterrorism FBI agents alike to probe the case on the day of the crash.

Recounting a day of rage, hate, violence and death in Charlottesville

Since the attack, which experts say appears to straddle the line between a hate crime and terrorism, details about Fields’s background have slowly emerged. Notably, a former teacher recalled him as a Nazi sympathizer since at least high school. But the 911 calls fit a different and striking pattern, one that seems to regularly emerge after a mass shooter opens fire in a public place or an act of terrorism erupts in the United States.

Time and time again, spasms of violence in public places have been followed by investigations into the attackers and suspects. Many of those probes have unearthed reports of violence or threatening behavior against women in their lives. While research has shown that domestic violence is not universally a factor preceding public attacks, it has cropped up often enough following high-profile incidents to constitute a disturbing, recognizable pattern.

Fields was accused of striking his mother, threatening her and standing behind her with a knife. In June, James T. Hodgkinson began shooting at Republican members of Congress at a baseball practice in Virginia; years earlier, police records show he was accused of grabbing his teenage daughter by the hair and punching a woman during the same episode. Earlier this year, authorities arrested Esteban Santiago and accused him of killing five people in a shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., international airport. He had drawn police attention in his Alaska home town for reports of domestic violence.

In February 2016, a 38-year-old man named Cedric Ford opened fire on a Kansas highway and then at a lawn mower factory where he worked. About 90 minutes before, authorities said, he was served with a restraining order meant to keep him from contact with someone he had abused.

That shooting came about three months after police said Robert Lewis Dear began firing at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, killing one police officer and two other people there. Before the November 2015 shooting in Colorado, at least two of Dear’s three ex-wives had accused him of physical abuse, and in 1992 he was arrested and accused of sexual violence and rape.

Was the Charlottesville car attack domestic terrorism, a hate crime or both?

Other attacks have been carried out after threats against women. In 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old college student, rampaged through a California college town after recording a video making explicit his desire to attack women. He ultimately killed six people, including three men stabbed to death in his apartment.

Before Seung Hui Cho stalked through the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, killing 32 students and teachers, two female students had said he was harassing them.

Violence at home has also preceded terrorist attacks. Before Omar Mateen rampaged through Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year, his ex-wife described him as abusive and said he beat her repeatedly. His second wife, to whom he was married at the time of the Pulse attack, has been arrested and charged with aiding and abetting his attack; in court filings, her attorneys said that Mateen “was both verbally and physically abusive to her” and had threatened to kill her.

The elder Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was accused of domestic violence in 2009.

Research on active shootings or mass killings has found that relatives were attacked in at least some cases. The FBI studied a number of active-shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013 and found that in nearly 1 in 10 of the shootings examined, shooters targeted their relatives. (That study did not exhaustively look at all mass killings over that span, leaving out gang violence and some other shootings.) A report from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group, stated that in more than half of mass shootings between January 2009 and June 2014, the attacker killed a family member or an intimate partner.

‘Very threatening’: Mother of Charlottesville suspect James A. Fields called 911 twice

James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor who studies mass killings, said the connection between domestic violence and such wider-scale violence appears more anecdotal than anything else.

Fox said he and Emma Fridel, a doctoral student at Northeastern, have been studying mass killings, building on a set of data from USA Today and expanding it with new categories.

The most common factor in these mass killings, Fox said, involved people killing members of their own families. Out of the 318 mass killing incidents between 2006 and 2016, he said, about half involved family members killing relatives and loved ones.

Overall, Fox said, about 1 in 6 mass killers in their data had histories of domestic violence. But Fox said he would not call it “a major predictor” of mass killings.

“It does happen,” Fox said in an interview Tuesday. “When you have these incidents, invariably, particularly the high-profile ones, the press will go back and talk to neighbors, look at police records, whatever they can, to understand how this happened and why people didn’t notice it.”

Fox said that in most cases with mass killers, a history of domestic violence will not be found. Instead, such attackers are more likely to have histories of unhappiness rather than explicit violence. This is why, in many cases, friends or neighbors will describe the bloodshed as coming of nowhere.

“How many times have you heard, ‘He seemed like such a nice guy’?” Fox said. “It’s not that they suddenly go snap and go berserk and act in ways that are uncharacteristic. It’s just that most of them have not had a history of serious violence. They may have a history of failure, of frustration, of anger, but not to the point they’ve been [violent].”

Further reading:

A Twitter campaign is outing people who marched with white nationalists in Charlottesville

Alleged driver of car that plowed into Charlottesville crowd was a Nazi sympathizer, former teacher says