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Charlottesville car attack suspect denied bail; police chief defends performance of his officers

Warning: Graphic content. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency as brawls between white nationalists and counter-protesters broke out in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.

A Virginia judge on Monday declined to set bail for James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old Ohio man accused of second-degree murder and other charges after authorities said he plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters near the scene of a white supremacist rally that erupted into violence.

Meanwhile, the police chief in Charlottesville — under fire for his department's handling of the deadly violence that boiled over during and after Saturday's rally by white supremacists and their allies — expressed regrets but defended the performance of his officers.

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"We were hoping for a peaceful event," Chief Al Thomas told reporters in the university town.

"Absolutely, I have regrets," the police chief said of the "tragic, tragic weekend" during which a counter-protester was killed and two state troopers died in the crash of a helicopter helping to monitor the disturbances.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, declaring that "we must learn from this tragic event to prevent a recurrence in our community or elsewhere," said he had ordered a broad review of the episode by state and local authorities.

"In addition, the federal government must focus on the threat of domestic terrorism, especially when it comes from beyond state lines," the Democratic governor said in a statement.

The judge's ruling earlier Monday means that Fields, whom news reports have described as fascinated by Nazism, will remain jailed at least until his court-appointed attorney requests bail.

The local public defenders' office informed the court it could not represent him because of a potential conflict of interest; someone in the office has a relative who was involved in Saturday's protests.

Fields said he makes $650 a month and could not afford a lawyer. The attorney appointed to represent him, Charles L. Weber Jr., could seek bond before the next scheduled hearing, Aug. 25.

James Alex Fields Jr.
James Alex Fields Jr. (Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail)

Amid the preliminary court proceedings, an increasingly troubled profile emerged of the young suspect. Citing transcripts of 911 calls, the Associated Press reported that Fields had been previously accused of beating his mother and threatening her with a knife.

Fields, clad in a black-and-white striped jail uniform, appeared via video link for Monday's hearing. He briefly responded to questions from Judge Robert Downer, replying, "No, sir," when asked whether he had any ties to the Charlottesville community.

Saturday's car rampage killed Heather Heyer, 32, a Charlottesville paralegal who was among counter-protesters responding to the rally by white nationalists and others. Those groups oppose a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park.

Fields was taken into custody soon after the attack.

Photos circulating on social media appeared to show Fields posing with members of Vanguard America, a white nationalist group, the day of the main rally. Fields held a black-and-white shield with the organization's insignia. The group said Fields was not a member and that the shields were distributed widely.

The hearing came soon after U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said the attack met the legal standard for an act of domestic terrorism. Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," the attorney general called the car rampage, which injured 19 people, an "unequivocally and unacceptable evil attack."

Sessions, who met Monday with President Trump, also defended the president against widespread criticism that he had not specifically condemned white supremacists in connection with Saturday's events, but instead blamed "many sides" for inciting the violence. Critics have called on the president to explicitly denounce the right-wing hate groups behind Saturday's march.

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"He said that yesterday, his spokesman did," the attorney general said in the ABC interview. He was referring to a White House statement, issued Sunday without a spokesperson's name attached to it, that maintained Trump's previous comments had implicitly included condemnation of white supremacists and allied groups.

Other senior Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, on a trip to Latin America, have denounced by name various hate movements including white nationalists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

Trump, returning to the White House on Monday from his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., did not respond to a volley of shouted questions from reporters about whether he condemns white nationalists.

But later, in a White House appearance that came 48 hours after the lethal violence in Charlottesville, Trump issued the specific condemnation his critics had sought.

"Racism is evil," the president said in a televised statement in which he named the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists as "criminals and thugs."

Times staff writers Cloud reported from Charlottesville, Va., and King from Washington.

Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

Twitter: @laurakingLAT

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UPDATES:

3:10 p.m.: This article has been updated with comment from the governor and a report of 911 transcripts showing that the suspect was previously accused of beating his mother.

2:48 p.m.: This article has been updated with comment from the police chief.

10:40 a.m.: This article has been updated with more comment from President Trump.

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9:15 a.m.: This article has been updated with an attorney being appointed to represent Fields, President Trump returning to White House and other details.

8:40 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting, additional details and comments from Atty Gen. Jeff Sessions.

This article was originally published at 7:45 a.m.

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