James Chambers’ then-girlfriend reported him missing in August 2014, stating that the last person she had seen him with was his co-worker Howard Ashleman. As the police initiated a search for James, there were no signs of his whereabouts. As days passed, the police had to broach the possibility of James being deceased to his family. Despite suspicions surrounding Howard’s involvement in his disappearance, there was no concrete evidence linking him to the crime. In NBC’s ‘Dateline: The Bridge,’ the episode delves into how Howard was eventually convicted of the crime and the cumulative evidence that led to his imprisonment.
Who is Howard Ashleman?
Howard Ashleman and James Chambers worked together as construction workers at Fort Bragg. Howard resided in the 1300 Block of Main Street in Wade, Cumberland County with an elderly couple called the Bensens. Several colleagues who witnessed their interactions noted a brewing animosity between the two. On August 15, 2014, James, living in Fayetteville with his roommate Brandi, was last seen by his girlfriend. Howard picked him up in his truck, supposedly for a weekend lifeguarding job at a nearby lake. Concerns arose when James didn’t return, and his absence from work on Monday prompted his girlfriend to notify his parents, who then informed the authorities.
The police’s search for James proved futile, and efforts to locate his body were equally unsuccessful. During their investigation, they contacted Howard, who claimed to have driven James to his house for a few drinks before leaving. Howard asserted that after dropping James home, he attended a neighbor’s barbecue. However, cellphone records contradicted his alibi, placing him elsewhere, not near his house or his neighbor’s. Howard explained that he had taken a friend named Reno Parks to a hospital and had omitted this detail earlier. Despite his explanations, the police grew suspicious. One alarming detail emerged—Howard had sold the truck he used to transport James to a scrapyard just a few weeks after James’ disappearance.
Despite their suspicions, the police lacked sufficient evidence to build a case against Howard, especially without recovering James’ body. Frustrated by the lack of progress, James’ parents hired a private investigator. During the investigation, the private investigator visited Howard and discovered some scraps of his truck in the backyard of Howard’s house. Upon closer inspection, apparent blood splatters were found on the remaining upholstery. However, DNA testing yielded inconclusive results. With no substantial leads, Howard eventually relocated to Hobe Sound in Florida and enrolled in Hobe Sound Bible College.
During his time at the college, Howard developed a romantic relationship with a girl named Hannah Jones. When news of this reached Fayetteville, detectives became concerned for Hannah’s safety and saw an opportunity for her to assist in the case. They informed Hannah that Howard was a murder suspect. To gather evidence, Hannah confronted Howard and secretly recorded their conversation. When she asked Howard directly if he had killed James Chambers, he nodded in acknowledgment. This revelation prompted Howard to have a change of heart, and he agreed to return to Fayetteville and confess to the crime. Prosecutors began working on a plea deal for him.
In a last-minute decision, Howard chose not to give his confession, and the case seemed on the brink of collapsing. He relocated to Florida and began residing with Hannah’s family. Despite this setback, the police possessed the recorded tape from Hannah and believed their case was strong enough to charge Howard. In December 2017, Hannah, now 18 years old, married Howard just two days before his arrest. Prosecutors suspected that this marriage was a legal tactic to shield Hannah from testifying against Howard.
Where is Howard Ashleman Now?
In February 2018, Howard was finally subjected to interrogation, where he agreed to divulge the details of James’ murder. According to his account, after having drinks at James’ house, James asked him to accompany him to collect a debt from someone. Howard claimed he did not agree to the plan, leading to a heated argument. In a moment of tension, he grabbed a rifle from his truck, intending to scare James but inadvertently ended up killing him.
Howard admitted to dumping the body in the woods behind his house and attempting to burn it, which failed, so they ultimately buried it. Detectives closing in on Howard made him nervous, so he dug his body up, dismembered it, and threw it from a bridge into a creek. However, when the police searched the area, James’ body was not found. Negotiations regarding Howard’s plea commenced, and by the end of February 2018, Howard entered a guilty plea to the charge of second-degree murder.
Howard’s sentence ranged from no less than 15 years and six months to a maximum of 19 years and eight months, with an additional six-month penalty for failing to surrender as he had promised to do. Presently, Howard, now 20 years old, is serving his sentence at the Columbus Correctional Institution near Brunswick, North Carolina, and he becomes eligible for parole on August 7, 2033.
Read More: Where Are James Chambers’ Parents Now?