As early as middle school, James Alex Fields was already spewing racist and inappropriate comments.
The 20-year-old — charged with second-degree murder on Monday for ramming a car into a crowd of white supremacist counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia — even made his former classmates uncomfortable by praising Hitler.
One of Fields’ former middle school classmates told The New York Times that Fields would “scream obscenities, whether it be about Hitler or racial slurs” and “wasn’t afraid to make you feel unsafe.” She also described him as “an outcast.”
But how Fields went from an angry and misguided teenager to an alleged murderer remains shrouded in tragic uncertainty. Since Trump’s election, he’s just one of many young white Americans whose quest for belonging led him to choose far-right ideologies, like the alt-right movement and neo-Nazism, experts told VICE News.
Fields went to middle school and high school in Kentucky before moving with his mother to Maumee, Ohio, although he moved into his own apartment several months ago. His father died before he was born, his aunt, Pam Fields, recalled to The New York Times.
Since the attack on Saturday that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer, Fields’ family members and neighbors have painted a similar portrait of the young man with the media: clever but troubled.
By his freshman year of high school, Fields had a reputation for his abnormal fascination with Nazi Germany. On a school trip to Europe, he referred to Germany as “the fatherland,” his roommate on the trip, Keegan McGrath, told VICE News.
“From the moment that we landed, he was completely different,” McGrath said. “I would have to tell him, ‘You can’t say these things. That’s not right.’” In fact, Fields’ comments made McGrath so uncomfortable, he flew home after just four days.
“A lot of boys get interested in the Germans and Nazis because they’re interested in World War II,” one of Fields’ high school history teachers, Derek Weimer, told The Cincinnati Enquirer. But Fields “took it to another level,” Weimer added. He also described Fields as “a very bright kid but very misguided and disillusioned.”
In 2011, Fields’ behavior turned violent. His disabled mother accused him of beating her and threatening her with a knife, according to The Associated Press, which cited records released from the Florence Kentucky Police Department.
In 2015, he tried to join the U.S. military before flunking out after just four months of basic training, the Army and records confirmed to VICE News. After his brief stint in the military, Fields worked for a security company called Securitas, according to CNN, where he made $650 every two weeks.
The day before Fields attended the “Unite the Right” event protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument, he asked his mother to watch his cat. Despite her thinking he was just attending a Trump rally, his Facebook profile, later captured by Buzzfeed, revealed alt-right imagery, like Pepe the Frog.
“I would have to tell him, ‘You can’t say these things. That’s not right.’”
“James Fields clearly was part of a wider group, and he saw himself fighting for that group and movement,” said Daniel Koehler, the founder and director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies. “This ‘hero’ identity fighting for the unjustly suppressed – in his mind the white supremacist movement – is a very common element and is used by these extremist groups to incite most brutal acts of violence in the name of ‘fighting for a just cause.’”
Arie Kruglanski, an award-winning expert on radicalization and terrorism, said that whether it’s neo-nazism or Islamic extremism, three universal components lead to radicalization: the quest for significance, a narrative serving as a vehicle for that significance, and a network of support.
“They all share the motivation to matter, to be somebody, to have respect and power,” Kruglanski said. “They all share across the board is that they are exposed to some narrative, some ideological narrative that tells them how they can be significant.”
The narrative Fields chose centered around hate-groups like Vanguard America, a white supremacist organization that decries an “endless tide of incompatible foreigners” which threaten to make white Americans a “minority in the nation they built,” according to its website. Although Vanguard denies Fields’ membership, he held a shield emblazoned with their black and white logo during demonstrations before the attack.
Since Trump’s election, similar fringe groups have snuck their way into mainstream politics. For example, White nationalist leaders — like Andrew Anglin, the founder of neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, and former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke — lauded Trump’s run for the White House. And while Trump eventually denounced them, some of the messages of his campaign served as a “stamp of approval” for alt-right groups, which went on to indoctrinate young white kids, especially of Fields’ age, according to Ryan Lenz, an editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog.
“Americans can be radicalized just as easily and in this current political climate frequently are,” Lenz said. “What we saw this weekend seems very much to be a testament to how the alt-right sees its role in Trump’s America.”
Editor’s note 8/18 12:57 p.m.: A previous version of this post named one of Fields’ former classmates. She requested to VICE News that her name be removed.