Washington — The Justice Department is seeking to seize money that has been contributed to the white supremacist who rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one person, at the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
In court filings reviewed by CBS News, federal prosecutors in December told the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia that James Alex Fields Jr. had a total of $759.86 in his “inmate trust account,” which prisoners can use to purchase snacks and goods from the prison commissary. Fields protested the motion in a handwritten filing of his own last month, and the court set a deadline of Tuesday for the government to respond.
The Unite the Right rally drew hundreds of self-professed white nationalists to Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Fields, who is from Maumee, Ohio, rammed his car into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the gathering before backing up and speeding away.
The mugshot of James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the silver Dodge Charger moments after driving into a crowd of counter-protesters on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail/Matthew Hatcher via Getty Images
The attack killed Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, and injured dozens of others. Fields, now 25, eventually confessed and pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes charges. He is serving a life sentence in federal prison in Springfield, Missouri.
In their December filing, prosecutors told the court that Fields has paid off only a tiny fraction of the $81,600 he owes in restitution and fines in his case. They said he continues to collect money by receiving transfers from “various individuals,” whose names and identities are sealed.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlottesville “recently was informed that the defendant currently maintains substantial funds in his inmate trust account maintained by the [Bureau of Prisons],” prosecutors wrote. They asked the court to order that at least $650 from Fields’s inmate account be transferred to pay down the fine and restitution balance he owes.
The filings are the latest in a series of revelations indicating that Fields is generating donations from and exchanging correspondence with unknown sources, at least some of whom are believed to be tied to the white nationalist movement.
While the names of people who have recently deposited money in Fields’s prison inmate account remain hidden, testimony at a 2021 civil trial in which victims sought monetary damages from prominent figures from the Unite the Right rally revealed Fields had been contacted by other white nationalists while behind bars.
According to a CBS News review of trial transcripts from the federal civil trial, one prominent white nationalist figure was asked if he’d sent Fields money. The man, who is believed to be tied to the so-called Traditionalist Workers Party, answered by saying, “I believe so.” According to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Traditionalist Workers Party is a group “that aims to indoctrinate high school and college students into White nationalism.”
The federal civil case also revealed that Fields has been the recipient of letters of support, even Christmas cards, while serving his term. Evidence produced during the civil case included a three-page letter written to Fields from a white nationalist figure, which concludes: “Thank you for your service to our people. If I can get you any reading materials or additional support, please let me know. Let’s be in touch, because as a man behind the wire, you deserve our support as a movement. May God bless you and Hail Victory.”
In a handwritten motion to the court on Jan. 23, Fields challenged the Justice Department’s efforts to seize his prisoner account funds. He asked the judge to allow him to keep at least some of the funds to make “phone calls, purchase stamps and sundry items.”
A handwritten motion filed by James Alex Fields Jr. on Jan. 23, 2023.
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia
Judge Michael Urbanski, the chief judge in the district court, set a deadline of Feb. 21 for the Justice Department to respond to Fields’ challenge. Fields’ federal defense attorney did not immediately return requests for comment from CBS News.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told CBS News there is no limit or cap to the deposits permitted to federal prison inmate accounts. Federal prison guidelines specify that “family, friends, or other sources may deposit funds into these accounts.” A copy of the Bureau of Prisons’ commissary price list shows the funds can be used at the Springfield federal prison facility for a wide variety of items ranging from coffee, sodas and snacks to digital radios and basketball sneakers.
During proceedings in his federal criminal case, Heyer’s mother said, “I never wish for the death penalty and still don’t. I would like to see him change in time from a white supremacist to someone who helps bring others away from white supremacy.”