James Fields goes on trial in Charlottesville today (11/26). He’s the man who allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters after a white supremacist rally in August, 2017. The crash killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer, but it also injured more than 30 people -- some of them still recovering. Sandy Hausman spoke with two of the victims who plan to testify at Fields’ trial.
28-year-old Al Bowie lives in Richmond, but when she heard about plans for a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville she felt she had to be there – to stand-up against racism. The street fighting she witnessed was appalling.
“It started getting ugly immediately,” she recalls. “They were throwing gas bombs. They were throwing rocks, and once they threw the smoke bombs what they would do is they would send guys out with bats and shields, just to beat up anybody who was in that general area.”
But when police declared a state of emergency and ordered Unite the Right participants to leave a downtown park, Bowie and other counter-protesters were jubilant. They marched through the city in celebration.
“People were chanting, ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ And there was a guy who had a voovoozella, and he was just blowing that horn as hard as he could.”
Minutes later, the sounds of joy were replaced as a car allegedly driven by 20-year-old James Fields raced down a narrow street clogged with people – hitting many, crashing into a parked car and then backing up.
“I was on the sidewalk, and I managed to turn just in time to see the impact. My reaction to that was to immediately run towards the car,” Bowie says. “I didn’t even consider that it could be intentional. I just knew I needed to get people out of there so medics could start working on them. I got about two feet away from the bumper, and he put his reverse lights on, and I just kind of made peace with it at that moment. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to get hit by a car.’ I wasn’t scared or anything. I didn’t have time to be scared. I got hung up on the trunk of his car, and I got smashed into a parked truck.”
Her pelvis was broken in six places. Nearby, lay 38-year-old Star Peterson.
“I saw Heather fly through the air, and then I felt some bumps which I later put together were the tires going over my leg.’”
Her legs and a rib were broken, and she suffered two spinal fractures. She would spend nearly a month in the hospital and in rehab. After five surgeries she’s still recovering.
“I had one infection after another for about a year, so just this year I’ve had to have three additional surgeries. I had to have my leg immobilized for a long time, so it took a really big detour, and I’m just now making additional progress beyond where I was a year ago.”
Like Bowie, Peterson still can’t work. Both women had health insurance, but co-pays and deductibles left Bowie with big medical bills. Posttraumatic stress disorder still causes panic attacks that leave her struggling to breathe, and the prospect of a trial has made her psychological problems even worse. Still she plans to be in court – to testify and to observe. Star Peterson will also take the stand.
“Because I need to do something for the woman I saw murdered,” she explains. “I feel like testifying on her behalf is something I can do for her.”
If he’s found guilty, Fields could be sentenced to life in prison without parole in Charlottesville Circuit Court and may get the death penalty in federal court next year if he’s convicted of a hate crime that led to the death of Heather Heyer.