Years before a 20-year-old Ohio man allegedly rammed his car into a panicked crowd of activists in Charlottesville, it was his disabled mother who was terrified.

James Alex Fields was barely a teenager in 2010 when his mother - who uses a wheelchair - locked herself in a bathroom, called emergency services and said her son had struck her head and put his hands over her mouth when she told him to stop playing a video game, according to police records. On another occasion, records show, he brandished a 30cm knife. Once, he spit in her face.

"Mum is scared he is going to become violent here," a dispatcher wrote in a log of the November 2011 call in which Fields's mother, Samantha Bloom, requested police help in getting her son to a hospital for assessment.

The portrait of a violent teen emerged as Fields was denied bail today during his first court appearance in connection with the Charlottesville attack that killed one and injured 19 others when his Dodge Challenger ploughed into a mass of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally on Sunday. He is charged with murder, hit and run and three counts of malicious wounding.

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Prosecutors did not detail the evidence against Fields, who appeared via a video link from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. Fields came to Virginia to attend the rally, according to Bloom, who spoke to reporters over the weekend.

Fields replied, "No, sir," when asked in court whether he has any ties to the Charlottesville community.

The college town, along with the nation, continued to grapple with the violence that took three lives, including two Virginia state troopers who were killed when their helicopter crashed in woods not far from Charlottesville. Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville, was killed when Fields barrelled towards her and other counterprotesters "at a high rate of speed," police said.

A few hours after the court hearing, President Donald Trump responded to growing criticism about his initial response to the violence by singling out the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists as "criminals and thugs . . . that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans".

James Alex Fields, 20, of Ohio.
James Alex Fields, 20, of Ohio.

Earlier, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions said in television appearances that the violence met the definition of domestic terrorism. Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said that his department responded to 250 calls and that officers were still taking reports of assault from the weekend.

Thomas defended his department's handling of the explosive convergence of white nationalists from around the country and hundreds of counterprotesters. Both sides have criticised the failure of officers to keep the sides apart, but Thomas said officers coped as well as they could with protesters, who were determined to cause trouble despite agreements worked out in advance.

Richard Spencer, a leader of the alt-right, which calls for a form of American apartheid, told reporters today that his group would "one hundred percent" return to Charlottesville to protest against the planned removal of a Robert E Lee statue. He also held his followers blameless in the Charlottesville melee.

Speaking in his Alexandria office after two Washington hotels cancelled his reservations, Spencer said that blame for the deadly attack fell on authorities who he said failed to keep order. "Mayor Mike Signer and Governor Terry McAuliffe have blood on their hands," he said. "Their job is to keep order. They kept chaos."

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Spencer also refused to condemn Fields, claiming that he had seen video footage of Fields's car being attacked by someone with a baseball bat.

James Alex Fields, second from left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally took place. Photo / AP
James Alex Fields, second from left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally took place. Photo / AP

"I'm not going to condemn this young man at this point. This man could have lost control because he felt in danger and slammed on the accelerator and unintentionally killed someone."

Spencer also dismissed Trump's condemnation of white supremacists as "hollow and vapid . . . kumbaya nonsense".

"I don't think anyone takes it seriously, including the president," he said.

At his appearance before Judge Robert Downer jnr in Charlottesville General District Court, Fields said he could not afford a lawyer and was appointed one by the court.

Fields, who served a four-month stint in the Army in 2015, worked for about two years as a security guard in Ohio.

Downer set August 25 as the next court date.

The city's decision this year to change the name of Lee Park to Emancipation Park and to order the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from the park has made it a lightning rod for white nationalists and extremists who see the moves as an attempt to erase white history.