Man accused of killing Heather Heyer faces first-degree murder charge

Man accused of killing Heather Heyer faces first-degree murder charge
Richard Wilson Preston (Source: WVIR)
Richard Wilson Preston (Source: WVIR)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (WWBT) - The man accused of plowing into a crowd and killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others during the Unite the Right rally in August has now been indicted on a first-degree murder charge.

James Alex Fields Jr., of Ohio, was originally charged with second-degree murder, but that was upgraded in court on Thursday. That's not the only charge being certified to the grand jury. There are nine others including several counts of malicious wounding and felonious assault.

Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, was in court along with about two dozen supporters. When asked about the charges being sent to the grand jury, she gave cameras a thumbs up.

Former Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford is representing Fields.

During Fields' preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth called Detective Steve Young to testify. Several videos depicting the crash were shown, including the view from a Virginia State Police helicopter that was following the crowd on 4th Street and Water Street.

When Fields' Dodge Challenger runs into the crowd you can hear a trooper say, "Oh my God!"  Then they say, "I got him!" as the helicopter follows the car as it leaves the scene.

A deputy can be seen quickly tailing the vehicle until it comes to a stop about a mile away. Video shows Fields sticking his hands out the window as a sheriff's deputy and two UVA officers approach the car.

Another angle of the crash was taken from restaurant surveillance video. It shows the car approaching the crowd. The video shows the car backing up, then speeding down the street towards the crowd.

At that moment, there was a loud gasp in the courtroom. One man jumped up obviously distraught and walked out of the courtroom along with two other people.

The defense asked Young what Fields said when he was arrested.

"He said, 'I'm sorry,'" said Young.

Young says Fields asked if the people were okay and denied any emergency aide stating the resources should go to the crash site.  Young says when Fields was told Heyer was killed in the crash, he said Fields was "shocked and upset" then "sobbed and cried."

Young also told the court that a yellow substance that smelled like urine was found on Fields' shirt.

Young also said while Fields was seen standing with the white supremacist group Vanguard America earlier in the day, there was no evidence to indicate to he belonged to any of those groups. Young says they could not find any information between Fields and other Alt Right groups prior to the rally.

Three other Charlottesville suspects were also in court on Thursday.

Richard Preston, a KKK leader out of Baltimore, is charged with shooting a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school. It's a felony and was certified to the grand jury.

Preston's attorney tried to claim it was self defense because an African American man named Cory Long was pointing a homemade flame thrower at the Alt Right crowd as they left Emancipation Park.

The Commonwealth called local attorney Frank Buck to the stand. Buck said he witnessed the encounter and said he heard somebody in the Alt Right crowd yell, "Kill the N*****!"

It was a claim the defense disputed.

Several witnesses for the defense stated they feared they were going to be burned alive when they saw Long with the flame thrower, which was described as a spray can with a flammable liquid. Video showed that liquid being sprayed on some members in the Alt Right crowd before there were flames.

Witness testimony varied on how long the flames were from 12 inches to 4 feet. Elmer Woodard, Preston's attorney said, "If it wasn't for this man, Charlottesville would be known as BBQ city. He's a hero!'

But Judge Robert Downer said using a firearm was not a reasonable defense of others and said there was enough probable cause for the charge to go before a grand jury.

Next up, James Goodwin and Alex Ramos faced the judge. Both are accused of being involved in the beating of Deandre Harris, a black man who was a counter protester.

Goodwin is charged with malicious wounding. Ramos is facing a felonious assault charge. Goodwin is being represented by Woodard. Ramos is being represented by John Joyce.

Cell phone video and surveillance video were shown in court. The only witness to be called was Charlottesville Police Detective Declan Hickey.

Video shows Harris and Long following an Alt Right crowd toward the Market Street garage. Hickey says there were arguments between both groups and it reached a boiling point at the garage.

Hickey pointed to video showing Long pulling a flag from an Alt Right member.  Then several fights break out including the one where Harris is beaten. Hickey said Harris' face was covered in blood and there were lacerations to his face.

Joyce told the court that the blows by Ramos were not enough to cause malicious wounding. Woodard argued Goodwin was not involved in the beating but got tangled up in it and tried to get away.

Downer disagreed and said there was enough evidence for probable cause, which certified both cases to the grand jury. Downer did add that he hopes police will continue to investigate and charge the other people seen in the video who were involved in the beating.

The defense subpoenaed Harris and Long to testify, but they did not show up.

Alt Right leader Jason Kessler also was seen in court on Thursday to watch the proceedings.  There were confrontations outside the courthouse between Kessler and members of the public who yelled for Kessler to get out of town.

The grand jury meets at 9:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 18.

Here is the statement from the Office of the Commonwealth's Attorney City of Charlottesville:

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