FLORENCE, Ky. — James A. Fields, Jr., expressed white-supremacy ideologies beginning in high school, but a former social studies teacher says educators did all they could to change the student’s way of thinking.
Derek Weimer, a former teacher at Randall K. Cooper High School in Union, Ky., who taught Mr. Fields during his junior and senior years, said Sunday he saw such ideologies in conversations with the student.
The teacher said Mr. Fields, 20, now of Maumee, expressed an idolism of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, but he said he never thought it would turn violent.
During conversations, radical views would come up in conversations about daily political topics, military topics, or “what if” scenarios, Mr. Weimer said. That included “what if Hitler would have defeated the Russians, how would that have changed the war,” the teacher said.
Mr. Weimer said he believed it was his mission to lead the student away from such radical thinking.
“I always countered his views. It was never aggressive, it was never a threatening situation,” Mr. Weimer, 45, said. “As much as I could, I tried to counter his views. I tried to relate historical situations to the current world that we live in.”
When the teacher, who taught at the district for approximately 10 years, learned his former student was accused of driving into a group of protesters in Virginia, he felt a measure of responsibility.
“My first feeling: I failed, we failed,” he said.
Mr. Weimer spoke out Sunday because he wants others to be more vigilant.
The Blade made multiple attempts to reach Mr. Fields’ relatives in Kentucky, where he lived until moving to Monclova Township with his mother, Samantha Bloom, about a year ago.
Cooper High Principal Mike Wilson confirmed in an email to The Blade that Mr. Fields was a 2015 graduate of the school and recalled he was “a quiet and reserved student.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those in Charlottesville, Virginia,” Mr. Wilson wrote. “Hatred and violence is never a viable solution to any problem. As educators, we are always using teachable moments and providing guidance to students to create college, career and life-ready students to make good and sound choices.”
Military records show Mr. Fields entered the Army on Aug. 18, 2015, but his active duty ended just months later, on Dec. 11.
The Army said Mr. Fields was released from active duty in December, 2015, “due to a failure to meet training standards.”
Knew he was at rally
Ms. Bloom, 49, told reporters at her Monclova Township apartment Saturday night that her son had moved recently to his own residence in Maumee but did not say exactly where.
She knew her son had gone to an “alt-right” rally but said she was unaware he’d been arrested for driving into protesters, killing Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring at least 19 others.
“I try to stay out of his political views,” she said Saturday. “I don’t get too involved.”
Photos taken at the rally before the crash show Mr. Fields dressed in a white polo shirt and holding a black shield with the symbol of the fascist group Vanguard America, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
Vanguard America denied by Twitter on Saturday that Mr. Fields was a member.
“The driver of the vehicle that hit counter protesters today was, in no way, a member of Vanguard America,” the post read in part. “The shields seen do not denote membership nor does the white shirt. The shields were freely handed out to anyone in attendance.”
Vanguard America says it is “the face of American fascism.” Its manifesto calls for a “nation exclusively for the White American peoples.”
It is a more extreme splinter faction of American Vanguard, a group that embraces a “full-throated national socialist ideology,” said Keegan Hankes, an analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“In the case of this guy, I don’t know enough to call him a member, but he showed quite a bit of intention to stand with these people and hold their symbols,” he said of Mr. Fields.
Though a Facebook profile bearing Mr. Fields’ name and photos that appeared to be of him was removed as of Sunday, screenshots of the page were shared online.
Among the photos is what the law center describes as an “othala rune.”
The rune, Mr. Hankes said, is used by various right-wing groups, including on the flag of the National Socialist Movement.
“This is directly pointing to a time when it was used for fascist authority,” he said of the symbol.
Generally, a ‘good kid’
Mr. Weimer said other teachers had expressed similar concerns to him about Mr. Fields after school projects. During Mr. Fields’ senior year, Mr. Weimer said he thought the student’s radical views began to change.
Mr. Weimer said Mr. Fields was an average student who did not have behavior problems in school.
Mr. Fields had a group of friends in one of Mr. Weimer’s classes, though the teacher said he did not believe the others shared the same ideologies.
A vehicle with Ohio plates that is believed to belong to James A. Fields, Jr., drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday.
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A classmate, Sam Gormley, 20, of Florence, Ky., said Mr. Fields kept to himself. The two had attended school together since elementary school, but they were in different friend groups.
“I didn’t know him as a high schooler that well,” he said. “I know he was a little out there. He was a little eccentric.”
After Mr. Fields graduated, he later moved to the Toledo area with his mother.
Generally, Mr. Fields was a “good kid,” Mr. Weimer said. “I liked James. I had a good rapport with James,” he said.
Mr. Weimer learned about the incident on the news, but he later heard that Mr. Fields was allegedly involved from a message from a former student.
“As a teacher, it’s your worst nightmare. You’re preparing kids for life after high school,” he said. “It hits you like a sledgehammer.”
FBI takes over
The scene was quiet outside Ms. Bloom’s home as Lucas County sheriff’s deputies Sunday morning blocked access to reporters and other nonresidents into the private drive at the community where she lives.
Maria Stanton, vice president of property operations for Independence, Ohio-based Redwood Living Inc., said the company was cooperating.
“Our focus is to take care of our residents, that’s first and foremost,” she said. “We certainly want to cooperate in any way and work with local law enforcement.”
FBI agents have interviewed Ms. Bloom, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said Sunday morning. They told him they “were taking the lead in this.”
“They contacted me to let me know they were in the area, that they were going to talk to the mother, which they already have,” he said. “What the conversation was, I don’t know.”
Kim Schwarting, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cleveland office, could not confirm that agents had spoken with Ms. Bloom. The agency’s office in Richmond, Va., was heading the inquiry, she said.
“Obviously the guy lives here, so we’ll be assisting in any way we can assist,” she said.
Other than a May 25 citation for driving on expired plates that Mr. Fields received in Maumee, neither the sheriff’s office nor Maumee police have had any contacts with him.
Sheriff Tharp and Maumee police Sgt. Thomas Hixon said their departments were unaware of any active area white supremacist-type groups and said Mr. Fields was not on any watch list to their knowledge.
“I can’t imagine that there would be something like that going on that we wouldn’t know about,” Sergeant Hixon said. “I’m sure if there was anything like that we’d want all of our officers to be aware of it.”
Information from staff writer Jennifer Feehan and The Blade’s news services was used in this report.