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Justice Department Opens Civil Rights Investigation Into Charlottesville Death

Rescue personnel help an injured woman after a car ran into a large group of protesters after an white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the hit-and-run that took a woman’s life and left at least five others in critical condition during a counter-protest to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.

Separately from the earlier “Unite the Right” rally staged by white nationalists at the city’s Emancipation Park, counter-demonstrators staged a peaceful, extensively filmed marched through downtown. Video shows two cars inching through an intersection where protesters were crossing. A gray Dodge Challenger sped from down the block and plowed into protesters and the last car in line, causing a chain reaction. The driver backed up and sped from the scene.

A short distance away, James Alex Fields, Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio, was taken into custody. He is currently charged with second-degree murder, malicious wounding and hit-and-run.

The slain woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was a paralegal who lived in Charlottesville. Five of the wounded were in critical condition, four of the injured were in serious condition, six were in fair condition and four were in good condition, according to the UVA Health System.

“The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice. When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement late Saturday. “I have talked with FBI Director Chris Wray, FBI agents on the scene, and law enforcement officials for the state of Virginia. The FBI has been supporting state and local authorities throughout the day. U.S. Attorney Rick Mountcastle has commence a federal investigation and will have the full support of the Department of Justice.”

Separately, the Richmond FBI Field Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia released a statement announcing that they and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division “have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident” that occurred Saturday. “The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence, and as this is an ongoing investigation we are not able to comment further at this time.”

Fields’ mother told the Toledo Blade that her son told her he was planning to drive to an “alt-right” rally in Virginia, but didn’t offer many details. “I thought it had something to do with [President] Trump,” Samantha Bloom told the paper. “I try to stay out of his political views. I don’t get too involved.”

Fields had been photographed at the earlier white supremacist rally, dressed in a white polo and khakis like others and holding a black shield. The group Vanguard America issued a statement denying he was a member, saying their branded shields “were freely handed out to anyone in attendance.” Fields’ Facebook page included imagery such as Pepe the frog and Hitler’s baby photo.

On Saturday evening, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for a Justice Department investigation into the crime, calling it “tragic and heartbreaking to see hatred and racism once again mar our great nation with bloodshed.”

“The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate. Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism,” Cruz said in a statement.

“These bigots want to tear our country apart, but they will fail. America is far better than this.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the attack “a confrontation between our better angels and our worst demons.”

“White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people and make our nation special,” he said. “As we mourn the tragedy that has occurred in Charlottesville, American patriots of all colors and creeds must come together to defy those who raise the flag of hatred and bigotry.”