Cover: Photo of a Randall K. Cooper High School 2013-2014 yearbook page showing James Alex Fields Jr.
As a high school student, James Alex Fields Jr. wore a belt with swastikas on it, and he drew the symbol everywhere, several of his former classmates told VICE News. By senior year, he’d come to be known as “the Nazi of the school.”
“You could see his beliefs plain as day,” said a former classmate of his at Randall K. Cooper High School, in Union, Kentucky. In fear of backlash from their community, several of Fields’ former classmates asked to remain anonymous. One even began tearing up at the thought of anyone realizing they’d spoken up about Fields’ past. “It’s getting really scary,” the classmate said.
Five of Fields’ former classmates who spoke to VICE News graduated within the past two years and remember him well. Those memories paint a dark picture of the now-20-year-old charged with second-degree murder for plowing a car into a crowd of anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday.
Cooper High School, located in the tiny city of Union, currently has a student population of a little over 1,000, and it’s 90 percent white. During his time there, Fields regularly found opportunities to single students out, especially for being “not white,” according to another classmate.
Fields would constantly mock those different from him, his former classmates said, and he often made hateful and racist comments. One former student recalled that Fields often harassed a female Muslim student, who wore a hijab, about being a terrorist.
“I usually tried to stay away from him,” the former student said.
Another former classmate who graduated last year recalled Fields picking fights with people who simply didn’t agree with his views. “He would make a lot of people uncomfortable because he’s one of those people that you never knew when they would do something,” the former student said.
When Fields, now a resident of Ohio, showed up to the “Unite the Right” rally against the takedown of a Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, he flaunted that extreme ideology. Although Fields’ mother thought he was only attending a Trump rally, he held a shield emblazoned with the black and white logo of Vanguard America, a white nationalist hate group. Vanguard, however, denies Fields’ membership. But his Facebook page, captured by BuzzFeed, also revealed “alt-right” imagery, like Pepe the Frog.
Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer holds a photo of Susan's mother and her daughter.
Even in high school, Fields’ former classmates said, nothing he did would have surprised them. No matter what Fields did, “the immediate response from people would be, ‘You know he’s a Nazi, right?’ It was not a secret,” one of his classmates said.
On a school trip to France and Germany, Keegan McGrath roomed with Fields. The two had taken German classes together for two years, and McGrath recalled that Fields repeatedly made inappropriate comments, praising Hitler and arguing that the French were inferior.
Although the trip was scheduled to last two weeks, Fields made McGrath so uncomfortable that he flew home after just four days. “He kept making these comments, and at one point I was like, “You can’t say these things, you know. That’s not right,” McGrath said. McGrath added that Fields was impatient while they were in France and anxious to get to Germany, which Fields called “the fatherland.”
When students tried to tell school officials of Fields’ radical behavior, however, they did nothing, several of his classmates said.
“A big issue was the school itself,” a former classmate said. “Because if anyone made a complaint, the administration would say, ‘We’ve taken note of this’ or ‘We will get this solved.’ But everything would be brushed off, just in general. Whether it was bullying, racist comments, or anything else.” The student added that, to their knowledge, Fields was never reprimanded or punished for his actions.
“I usually tried to stay away from him.”
Another one of Fields’ former classmates blames the school directly. “The school most definitely could’ve prevented it if they actually cared about the students and listened to the complaints about him,” they said.
Principal D. Michael Wilson, as well as all three assistant principals, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Wilson told the Toledo Blade, “This is one outlier. That’s not who we are.”
Ed Massey, chairman of the Board of Education for Boone County, which oversees the district encompassing Cooper High School, told VICE News that the board had never heard of Fields and that only students facing expulsion would be flagged.
“The board had absolutely no knowledge of anything,” Massey said. “This is a tragedy for American communities.” The board has had a zero-tolerance bullying policy in place for several years and has no plans to amend the rules, according to Massey. No other board members responded to VICE News’ requests for comment.
In his numerous interviews since the attack on Saturday, which left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead, Fields’ former history teacher Derek Weimer acknowledged that Fields’ radicalism had long been brewing. He said Fields had a fascination with Hitler and Nazi Germany that went beyond the normal interest in World War II. “He had white supremacist views. He really believed in that stuff,” Weimer told the Washington Post.
“I admit I failed. I tried my best,” Weimer added. “But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”
Many of Fields’ former classmates feel the same. One, for example, worried Trump isn’t being hard enough on the growing threat of white supremacy in the U.S.
All of Fields’ former classmates who spoke with VICE News wished that school officials and others had acted on the warning signs.
“I think the main takeaway from this whole situation is to express to people to not take actions and views like his as a joke,” a classmate said. “For years, that’s what the students and administration of Cooper did, and now, someone had to lose their life because of it.”