Violence at 'Unite the Right' led to a life lost and others forever changed
When James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters after the “Unite the Right” rally, it was a manifestation of hate that impacted the lives of dozens of people as well as a central Virginia town.
One person — 32-year-old Heather D. Heyer — died in the attack and at least eight others suffered lifelong physical and emotional injuries after being struck by the 2010 Dodge Challenger on Aug. 12, 2017.
The crash happened after one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis in the country in recent years. Fields, a previously unknown 21-year-old from Maumee, Ohio, had neo-Nazi sympathies and alt-right leanings before arriving in Virginia.
A jury found Fields guilty of first-degree murder and nine other felonies for his actions in Charlottesville, Virginia, and on Dec. 11, a jury recommended a life sentence plus 419 years in prison. Fields will be formally sentenced March 29. He also faces a federal trial on 30 hate crimes charges.
Testimony and evidence at the trial revealed new details about where Fields went during “Unite the Right,” how he ended up in a 2010 Dodge Challenger staring at a group of counterprotesters near the city’s downtown mall and what happened after he decided to hit the accelerator.
The crime not only shook the city of 48,000 tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains: it rocked the world, changing people’s lives and focusing attention on the racist “alt-right” and the violence that can accompany the movement.
And the testimony at the trial brought survivors and witnesses together in one place to tell their stories.
Fields had been a neo-Nazi sympathizer for at least a couple of years. In May 2017, he twice posted on Instagram photos of a car running down a crowd of people labeled “protesters.”
Those photos on social media foreshadowed the fateful trip Fields made three months later, which ended in death.
Fields left home Ohio, around 7 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2017, after a text exchange with his mother who urged him to be careful.
Fields responded quickly: “We’re not the ones who need to be careful,” and attached an image of Hitler to the message.
Fields made the 544-mile drive through the night, arriving in central Virginia around 3:30 a.m.
After waiting for sunup in a McDonald’s parking lot, Fields had breakfast at a Waffle House before wandering around parts of downtown by himself in the hours before the rally, which had been organized ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park near downtown.
Fields, dressed in a white polo shirt and khaki pants, met up with Vanguard America, who were instructed to dress similarly.
“It was the uniform of the day,” said John Hill, one of Field’s attorneys.
Vanguard America carried shields with two axes crossed in a circle on it as a logo.
Someone gave Fields a shield and he rallied with the group near the Lee statue.
“Unite the Right,” which was to feature alt-right and white nationalist speakers, never got off the ground.
Beset by violent confrontations between alt-right adherents and counterprotesters, including fights and people throwing water bottles and other items at each other, the rally was declared an “unlawful assembly” by Virginia State Police shortly before noon.
Around that time, five people, including at least one member of the neo-Confederate League of the South, attacked counterprotester DeAndre Harris in a parking garage down the street from the park as the crowd dispersed.
Also that day, a Maryland Ku Klux Klan leader fired a shot at a counterprotester. The shot didn’t hit anyone, but the Klan leader, Richard Wilson Preston, was arrested.
Stephen Simocheck, a Charlottesville resident who filmed parts of the rally, captured Vanguard America leaving the park and moving down Market Street. In the video, Fields marched with the group, his mouth moving as members chant “Jews will not replace us!” and “You will not replace us!” as they headed away from downtown.
The procession headed to nearby McIntyre Park, where dozens of white nationalists heard racist "alt-right" frontman Richard Spencer and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke briefly address a crowd.
Fields, along with three associates, left and returned to his car. Fields drove the trio back to their vehicles and then made his way to Market Street through downtown. Much like the drivers of a Honda Odyssey and Toyota Camry, Fields was diverted to Fourth Street, one of only two vehicular crossings for the mall, heading south toward Water Street because of a roadblock.
Moments later, Fields found himself staring at several hundred people, many of whom had been counterprotesters earlier in the day.
From celebration to crime scene
Two diverse groups of people merged at around 1:30 p.m. a half-mile away from the Lee statue, gathering near the intersection of Fourth and Water streets.
The group included Wednesday Bowie, a counterprotester who arrived in Charlottesville the day before “Unite the Right,” and local residents Marcus Martin and his then-fiancé Marissa Blair, who met up with two other people, including Heyer, for the march.
“Heather wasn’t 100 percent sure she wanted to go,” said Blair, who is now married to Martin. “We were a little surprised when Heather called and said she wanted to go.”
The groups chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Black Lives Matter,” celebrating the apparent failure of the “Unite the Right” rally.
The disorganized crowd as it sang “Lean on Me,” the classic soul hit by Bill Withers. The group had no specific leader as it took part in chants and songs as part of its joyous mood.
“Nobody knew the words and I was thinking ‘It’s like four lines,’” Charlottesville resident Bryan Henderson said. “The mood at that point was celebratory, like something had been accomplished.”
Aubtin Heydari, in town from New York that weekend, took part in the counterprotests and recalls a similar feeling in the air.
“There was a sense of optimism because police declared ‘Unite the Right’ an unlawful assembly,” Heydari said.
Michael Webster and his girlfriend, Melissa Elliott, decided to go to the downtown pedestrian mall around 1:30 p.m, both to have lunch and support local businesses on what had been a tough day.
The normally popular area filled with shops and restaurants was “a ghost town,” Webster said, outside of the boisterous crowd at the intersection and three cars on Fourth Street — a maroon Honda Odyssey minivan and a convertible Toyota Camry stopped for the crowd — and a gray 2010 Dodge Challenger that had backed up across the mall.
The group drew attention, with Webster pulling out his phone and filming what he thought might be a historic moment.
“They’re boisterous,” Webster said.
No one is sure why, but the counterprotesters headed up Fourth Street toward the pedestrian mall. The street was the only open road for cars to cross the area legally.
“It seemed random at the time,” Bowie said.
The normally popular area filled with shops and restaurants was a ghost town, Webster remembers, outside of the boisterous crowd at the intersection and three cars on Fourth Street — a Honda Odyssey minivan and a convertible Toyota Camry stopped for the crowd — and a gray 2010 Dodge Challenger that had backed up across the mall.
The minivan, driven by Lizette Short headed down Fourth Street toward Water Street, where Short saw a black pickup truck parked on the narrow road and a large crowd of people in the intersection.
Realizing her route was blocked, Short also began filming the group and spotted Henderson, who she knew from around town.
“I felt comfortable rolling my window down,” Short said.
Behind her, 28-year-old Tadrint “Tay” Washington drove her convertible Toyota Camry to a stopping point in the middle of the street after being blocked by the crowd.
Washington, a Mississippi native and Charlottesville resident for multiple years, sat in awe of the crowd blocking her way.
“I never saw so many white people standing up for black people,” Washington said. “It was amazing. It was a wow factor.”
Behind Washington, a dark gray 2010 Dodge Challenger also approached the blocked intersection. Washington didn’t think much of it at the time.
Webster, who had crossed into the mall to go to lunch with Elliott, saw the Challenger driver back up across the red-brick pedestrian mall.
“We actually passed directly in front of the Challenger,” Webster said, noting that no one was behind the Dodge.
Webster and Elliott heard the car rev up and start down the street toward the crowd.
“I saw the back half of the Challenger,” Webster said. “Because of the world we live in, my immediate thought was, ‘Oh my God, he’s driving into the crowd.’”
Ryan Kelly, then a photographer working his last day for the local paper, the Daily Progress, also saw Fields back the car up.
“I assumed the car was just … getting out of the way,” Kelly said.
‘I saw bodies flying everywhere’
“You look up and you see people flying,” a tearful Martin recalled.
Fields backed his car across the pedestrian mall, then sat and idled for a moment. A security camera at the Red Pump Kitchen, a restaurant on the north side of the pedestrian mall, captured the car momentarily still with nothing behind it.
In front of Fields stood a few people headed to lunch and the crowd of counterprotesters down the street.
Charlottesville resident Brennan Gilmore, a foreign service officer for the State Department, walked down Fourth Street toward Water Street toward the Impeccable Pig clothing store and Timberlake’s drug store, looking down at the crowd of counterprotesters and taking video and photos of the moment.
A car’s engine revved behind him.
“Instead of stopping, it accelerated,” Gilmore said. “I saw bodies flying everywhere.”
Kelly, the photographer, snapped photos of Fields crashing into the crowd and the back of the Camry. One of those pictures, in which Henderson can be seen flying through the air, won a Pulitzer Prize for photography.
“It was faster than I’d seen any car go down that street,” Kelly said.
Henderson saw the car about 15 feet away and jumped.
“I was 40-years-old, not as fast as I used to be,” Henderson said. “It caught my hip … and took my feet away a little bit too fast.”
A narrow street bordered by brick buildings — about 10 steps across from sidewalk to sidewalk and partially blocked by six parallel parking spots and a bicycle rack — there was no place to go and little time to react as Fields plowed his car into the crowd at 1:42 p.m.
“I felt the force,” Short said. “My phone got thrown. I don’t remember anything after that.”
As the car hit the crowd, cries and screams went up.
“Medic! Medic! Medic!”
Blair remembers the car hitting the crowd, being pushed to the left and trying to find Martin.
“Marcus! Marcus! Marcus!” Blair yelled over the screams.
Heyer happened to be near the front of the crowd as Fields drove his Challenger into the group. Jeanne “Star” Peterson had just walked past Short’s and Washington’s vehicles when she was hit by Fields.
“I just remember there being three bumps,” Peterson recalled about being knocked down and run over.
As she lay on the ground reeling, Peterson saw Heyer nearby. She had flown up onto the windshield of the car, then fell off.
“I just remember seeing Heather Heyer’s eyes,” Peterson said. “I thought that this is what someone’s eyes look like when they’re dead.”
Bowie, the counterprotester who arrived in Charlottesville the day before, started running toward the injured when Fields, now in reverse, struck her. The impact threw Bowie onto the trunk of Fields’ car, which had a shoe on the hood and a water bottle stuck near the windshield.
“I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I’m being hit by a car. This is happening,’” Bowie said.
As Fields accelerated in reverse up Fourth Street, Bowie fell off the trunk and onto the black pickup parked near the corner with Water Street. Her pelvis broke in six places, as did the right orbital bone in her check. The impact severed her femoral artery.
“Just being sat down was excruciatingly painful,” Bowie said. “Basically, I was bleeding out sitting there.”
Fields, the bumper on his car now gone, the windshield cracked and carrying human tissue and his car marked with brown-red blood stains, drove in reverse to Market Street, near where the “Unite the Right” rally had been held.
“It flew backwards off the mall and out of sight,” Elliott said of Fields’ car.
He drove about two miles until police stopped him in a residential area.
Surrounded by Albemarle County Sheriff’s deputies, a Virginia State Police helicopter and University of Virginia police officers, Fields left his car without resistance.
“Get on your butt!” UVA officer Dean Dotts yelled. “Cross your feet!”
Fields later broke down in tears when told someone had died after being hit by his car. He also told police he thought he was being attacked, even though no witnesses or video showed anyone approaching his car.
As police chased and stopped Fields, Charlottesville Fire Captain Nick Barrell found Heyer on the ground with civilians performing CPR.
Barrell said Heyer had a large bruise across her chest and likely internal injuries. He took over resuscitation efforts.
“We’re being really aggressive trying to resuscitate her,” Barrell said
The paramedics stabilized her head and continued trying to revive her.
“When I checked her pulse, I noticed that her color faded,” Barrell said. “There was no carotid pulse.”
Dr. Jennifer Bowers, the assistant chief medical examiner for Virginia, later concluded that the main artery leading from Heyer’s heart was beyond repair.
“It was snapped in half,” Bowers said.
Exhibit No. 92
The small manila envelope passed quickly from the prosecutor to Charlottesville Police Detective Jeremy Carper, one of five such packages moved into evidence at Fields’ state murder trial.
Inside the packets were blood and tissue samples recovered from the 2010 Dodge Challenger driven by Fields.
The DNA — marked Exhibit No. 92 — linked Heyer’s death to Fields’ car.
“She’s No. 92 now,” Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said outside the Charlottesville Circuit Courtroom during a break in the trial. “That’s her DNA.”
Survivors of the crash described their injuries — and the ongoing affects more than 16 months later during Fields’ trial, which ended Dec. 11.
Bowie still walks uneasily with an uneven gait, 16 months after being hit.
Jeanne Peterson, who entered the courtroom in a wheelchair then walked with the help of a cane and deputy to the witness stand, described how Fields ran over her.
She took the jury through a series of X-rays detailing her shattered leg.
“A lot of crushed bones,” Peterson said. “They threw out anything that actually came out of my skin because of infection.”
Peterson said she has had five surgeries so far, with a sixth set for next year.
Henderson, who was caught on film flying through the air when hit, sustained four broken ribs, an injury not diagnosed properly for two days.
“I didn’t know my ribs were broken until that Monday,” Henderson said.
Henderson also suffered torn biceps and triceps muscles. He still has nerve damage from the incident.
Heydari, who suffered a concussion, has spotty memories of the day.
“I remember trying to walk and not being able to walk,” Heydari said.
Fields also struck Thomas Baker, a conservation biologist and Charlottesville resident. Baker heard screaming, then a “very odd thump.” Fields’ car tossed him onto the windshield, then on to the ground.
“I was very frustrated,” Baker said. “I thought that’s how my last second is going to be.”
Baker suffered a hip injury requiring four permanent screws and permanent sutures in his hip. He’s expecting to need a hip replacement in the coming years.
Twenty-four hours after a jury found Fields guilty of first-degree murder and nine other felonies, a team of Santas and elves wearing shorts, tutus and green-and-red stiped tights jogged through downtown Charlottesville.
Life in the city has mostly returned to normal, although thoughts and talk of Aug. 12, 2017 linger.
There are few physical reminders of “Unite the Right” around downtown Charlottesville.
The Robert E. Lee statue still stands in what has been renamed Market Street Park. A similar statue to Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is also still up in what is now Court Square Park between the Charlottesville Circuit Court building and the Albemarle County Courthouse.
The city has placed orange plastic fencing surrounding the statues, which remain unmolested in two parks in downtown.
The organizer of “Unite the Right,” Jason Kessler, is rarely seen in his hometown anymore. He’s been banned for four years from the University of Virginia campus for threatening students and has said online that he’s moved away from the area.
Four people who took part in the parking garage attack on DeAndre Harris were arrested. Two were sentenced to prison, one is awaiting sentencing and one is scheduled for trial in February. A fifth has never been identified.
The Maryland Klan leader was sentenced to four years in prison for firing the shot.
On the downtown mall, life mostly goes on. People shop at the local stores, walk their dogs and jog along the brick-lined pathway.
A few blocks from the courthouse, a memorial to Heather Heyer on Fourth and Water Streets has grown to encompass the brick walls on either side of the street, with chalk writings working around the doors of the Melody Supreme record store and a pet grooming shop.
Scrawled chalk-written slogans such as “Gone But Not Forgotten” and “Heyer Love” line the walls and sidewalk where Fields’ car struck the crowd. Wilting bouquets of purple flowers are occasionally replaced by fresh flowers on the utility poles.
Some in Charlottesville, a university town known before “Unite the Right” as the home of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, are still grappling with what happened.
On the third day of testimony at Fields’ trial, patrons at the Vita Nova, a popular pizza place for lunch on the downtown mall shared memories of hearing the collision on Aug. 12, 2017.
“After what Fields did, I wished I personally believed in hell,” one patron told the cashier behind the counter.
A jury recommended a sentence of life in prison plus 419 years for Fields, who in a recorded call to his mother referred to the counterprotesters as the “enemy” and “communists.” He also faces a pending federal hate crimes trial.
And, survivors of the attack, including Bowie, struggle each day.
“The sounds from that day are extremely hard to hear,” Bowie said. “And I now have an extremely low tolerance for mean people.”
The lifelong struggles facing the survivors of the attack are the consequences of a poor decision made by a young neo-Nazi who has seen his last days as a free man.