In the years before James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly plowed through a crowd of counter-protestors in his car at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday — killing one and injuring at least 19 others — he openly shared views aligned with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, his former high school history teacher tells PEOPLE.
“This isn’t a guy who just decided ‘I’m going to go down there and check out this rally and a switch flipped,’ ” says Derek Weimer, 45, who says he taught Fields during the 20-year-old suspect’s junior and senior years at Randall K. Cooper High School in Union, Kentucky.
“As his high school teacher, I did everything I could to steer him [Fields] away from those views, those ideas, and I failed him, we failed, we did,” Weimer says. “I feel a little guilty now. What could I have said to James?”
Echoing Weimer’s experience, one of Fields’ former high school classmates told local TV station WCPO that he would refer to “himself as a Nazi.”
“He would proclaim himself as a Nazi … it was not a secret,” the classmate said.
On Saturday, Charlottesville authorities allege that Fields intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors as a white nationalist rally there was dispersing.
The far-right gathering was in protest of the planned removal of a local statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The car attack killed 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer.
Fields, who allegedly fled the scene afterward, was later arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder, malicious wounding and failure to stop in an accident that resulted in death. He remains in custody without bond following an initial court appearance on Monday.
His court-appointed attorney did not immediately return a call and message seeking comment. It was unclear if he has entered a plea.
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Weimer says he first became aware of Fields’ pro-Nazi views during the accused’s freshman year. Another teacher confided in Weimer that Fields had turned in a written assignment espousing the views of white supremacists and that “Adolf Hitler was trying to do good things,” Weimer recalls, noting school administrators were contacted.
When Fields was a junior, Weimer first had him as a student for World History and the following year for the elective America’s Modern Wars.
The pair became close, Weimer says: “I was probably his favorite or one of his favorite teachers. I established a good rapport with James.”
Weimer remembers that Fields had few friends and was “fairly quiet, fairly mature for his age.”
“He wasn’t a goofball and didn’t blurt out things,” Weimer says. “He was fairly reserved.”
But when the conversation turned to politics or history, both inside and outside of class, “within five minutes he’d start directing it towards his beliefs in white supremacy and the Nazis and Adolf Hitler and what they were trying to do,” Weimer says. “You could tell he was really invested in this belief.”
Weimer tried — to no avail — to dissuade Fields from those views, he says.
“There was never much of a response,” he says. “He wasn’t disrespectful, he never got angry or belligerent.”
Weimer adds: “I liked James, and I wanted to do what I could to get him beyond that crap. It was my goal to separate him from that garbage.”
Field’s mother, Samantha Bloom, told the Associated Press that she knew her son was attending a rally on Saturday but believed it was connected to President Donald Trump. “I thought it had something to do with Trump,” she said. “Trump’s not a white supremacist.
Bloom (whom PEOPLE could not reach) said she was not well-versed in her son’s political beliefs, telling the AP, “I try to stay out of his political views. I don’t really get too involved.”
She noted her son “had an African-American friend.”
However, Weimer says Fields’ interest in the Nazis and Hitler specifically, was obvious in high school.
During senior year, Fields read — on his own time — Hitler’s 1925 autobiograpahy, Mein Kampf, or “My Struggle,” according to Weimer.
“He was a bright guy and he had a motive, a desire to pursue this,” Weimer says of his former student, “and I think he was self-taught.”
Weimer says he last spoke to Fields in June 2015, at the end of Fields’ senior year. An avid science-fiction reader, Fields gave Weimer a fictional book based on the scif-i military shooter video game Halo, Weimer says.
ABC News reports that after graduation, a group of students, including Fields, visited the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
At the time, Fields allegedly said, according to two students who spoke to ABC: “This is where the magic happened.”
At least 28,000 people, including countless Jews, were killed by the Nazis at Dauchau and at Dauchau sub-camps, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
Weimer says he is speaking out now about what he observed of Fields’ beliefs because he sees “a problem in our country where a lot of hatred is being developed on the fringes.”
“And unless this is something we start to acknowledge there are going to be a lot more James Fields, sadly,” Weimer says. “People need to understand this was a path he was on and at some point that path could have been blocked possibly.”