As It Happens

'We all knew about it': Accused Charlottesville killer idolized Nazis in high school, teacher says

Derek Weimer says most of the faculty James Fields Jr.'s high school knew he espoused Nazi ideology, but were unable to set him straight.
James Alex Fields Jr., second from left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville, Va., where a white nationalist rally took place. (Alan Goffinski/Associated Press)

Story transcript

Derek Weimer says most of the faculty at James Alex Fields Jr.'s  high school knew he espoused Nazi ideology, but were unable to set him straight.

"We, his teachers who had him through the years, we all knew about it," Weimer told As It Happens guest host Mike Finnerty. "You know, teachers talk."

Fields, 20,  is accused of killing Heather Heyer, 32, by slamming a car into a group of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.. He is currently being held without bail on murder charges and is due in court again on Aug. 25.

A protester carries an image of Heather Heyer during a demonstration against racism and the violence over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Weimer taught Fields history at Randall K. Cooper High School in Union, Ky., between 2013 and 2015.

"He was a smart kid and he stayed up to date on politics and he knew history well, so he could have a conversation with me," Weimer said.

"Once you talked to him for a little while ... at some point his beliefs of, you know, whites being dominant or the Nazis being good or Adolf Hilter standing for good things and making sense with some of the stuff he was doing, that would come into the conversation."

Derek Weimer, a former teacher of alleged murderer James Alex Fields Jr., said Fields was fascinated with Nazism and idolized Adolf Hitler in high school. (Dake Kang/Associated Press)

He specifically remembers a paper Fields wrote for his class "America's Modern Wars" about the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of Germany's Nazi Party.

"He really glorified them," Weimer said. "It was very clear that he had a great love and like for the Germans in World War II, especially when it came to military."

The teacher said he tried to set Fields straight, both through his class lectures about the perils of Nazism, and in one-on-one conversations.

"I would always come back with reasons why that was wrong," he said. "He listened and he kind of nodded his head ... but, in the end, I could not, I did not succeed in turning his opinions and views around."

James Fields is accused of slamming his car into a group of counter-protesters and killing a woman in Charlottesville, Va. (Charlottesville Police Department/Reuters, Win McNamee/Getty)

Teachers weren't the only ones who were exposed to Fields' extremist views in school. 

Several of the accused killer's former classmates described him to Reuters as an angry young man who spoke admiringly about the Nazis and Adolf Hitler.

For two years I worked to get him to abandon those views, to come to his senses, to reach his moral side and, you know, I failed.- Derek Weimer, history teacher

During a June 2015 school trip, Fields spat on a Russian war memorial in Germany and refused to shower because he did not want to use what he called "that dirty pig water," according to a former classmate who has known Fields since childhood and asked to remain anonymous.

Another former high school classmate, Caleb Orndorff, who is black, said he and his brother once got into a verbal confrontation with Fields and that Fields called them a racial slur in response.

Details have also begun to emerge about Fields' home life. His father was killed by a drunk driver months before his birth, the Washington Post reported, citing an unidentified uncle.

Records show Fields was arrested and put in juvenile detention after his mother reported in 2011 that he stood behind her wielding a 30-cm knife.

In another incident in 2010, she said her son smacked her in the head and locked her in the bathroom after she told him to stop playing video games. There was no indication in the records that he was arrested.

Weimer said he knew Fields was dealing with "some mental issues and challenges" but was not aware of the details about his home life. 

People comfort each other during a vigil in Philadelphia to support of the victims of violence at the 'Unite the Right' rally In Charlottesville, Va. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

Weimer is adamant that he did his best to educate all his students about the evils of Nazism. Still, he now wonders whether he could have done more.

Fields' freshmen history teacher flagged one of his essays about Nazis to the administration, Weimer said, but he doesn't know whether anything came of it. He said the faculty never joined forces to launch any kind of intervention. 

"For two years I worked to get him to abandon those views, to come to his senses, to reach his moral side and, you know, I failed," he said.

"Maybe I could have been more extreme, more blunt, aggressive. Maybe I could have taken him aside and given him a matter-of fact, in-your-face type of discussion that, you know, you're going down the wrong path and these are examples of your future.

"I wish I had a crystal ball. If I had any inkling that he was capable or possibly capable of this sort of violence, yeah, I would have been more aggressive about putting this to him."

With files from Reuters