Episode 83-James Chambers, Cole Thomas, and Sydney West

A man from Fayetteville gets a ride from a co-worker and is never seen again, until a religious awakening with a murderer brings the secrets to light. Another young man from Florida takes a job out of state while he figures out his next move, abruptly exits his truck while riding with co-workers he doesn’t know very well in North Carolina in the early hours of the morning, and his never seen again. And a young woman from North Carolina heads to California to attend her dream college, but goes missing early one morning while exercising on the Golden Gate Bridge. Her family is determined to learn what happened to their daughter. We’ll also bring you updates on an elderly woman who went missing from Charlotte in December and a Jane Doe who was found in Florida in 1995 who might have ties to South Carolina.

James Chambers

In August 2014, a 28-year-old man named James Allan Chambers III went missing from his home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. At the time, he was working as a civilian construction worker on the Army base at Fort Bragg. His former girlfriend told investigators he had left with a friend named Howard Ashleman. Supposedly Howard was going to drive James to a weekend lifeguard job at a lake out of town. But when he never returned, his family grew worried and reported him missing. The following information was shared by staff writers Jack Boden and Paul Woolverton with The Fayetteville Observer.

Investigators immediately suspected Howard Ashleman was involved in James’ disappearance but didn’t have enough evidence that he knew where James was. With no sign of James or proof that he had come to harm, the case went cold. But Howard later moved to Florida, got married, and began studies at a bible college. With the guilt weighing on him, he told his wife that he had murdered James and disposed of his body. Over several different conversations, which his wife recorded at least once, he gave more details. She then shared the information with police in Florida. They interviewed him but did not arrest him. He retained a public defender from Cumberland County and began negotiating with Fayetteville law enforcement to plead guilty and surrender in January of 2017.

But the investigation hit a snag. Law enforcement officers said they were still collecting evidence and were not ready to arrest Howard. They didn’t want to jeopardize their case. Howard was expected to surrender later that year, but the negotiations stalled. He was finally arrested in February 2018 and charged with robbery and murder.

Howard Ashleman claimed he and James Chambers had a contentious relationship, and they had gotten into an argument on the on August 15, 2014. Howard said he stopped the truck, took a gun from the truck bed and fired into the cab. He said he only meant to scare James, but the bullet struck and killed him instead. He confessed to a local drug dealer later that night that he had money from a dead man. Authorities later found that dealer and corroborated those statement. During his confession, he said he burned and buried James’ body in Cumberland County, and then grew paranoid it would be found in the Wade area of the county. So he dug up James’ remains, dismembered them, put them in plastic garbage bags, drove to a bridge over a waterway, and dropped them over the side into the Cape Fear River. He then took his truck to a salvage yard and had it crushed.

Eight days after his arrest, Howard Ashleman pled guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to at least 15 years, six months, but no more than 19 years, eight months in prison. He is currently serving his sentence at the Columbus Correctional Institution in Whiteville. As part of his plea, he agreed to show investigators where he disposed of James’ body. He knows it was a bridge in a remote area, but says he can’t remember exactly where. A recent episode of Dateline titled “The Bridge” shared details of the case and the search for James. He still has not been found.

Cole Thomas

On November 25, 2016, Cole went missing from a work crew he was traveling with in Benson, North Carolina. The circumstances under which he went missing are suspicious, and his family is still unfortunately searching for answers amidst the changing stories they’ve been told about their son.

Christopher Cole Thomas, who goes by the name Cole, was originally from Live Oak, Florida. His dad Chris told the News & Observer that Cole was an A-student in high school who finished his associates degree before graduating. He received a scholarship to study sports medicine to the University of Florida and was missing only a few credits for his bachelor’s degree four years later when he left to take some time off. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to focus on for a career.

His dad said he took a job working as an electrical apprentice in Minnesota. On the morning he went missing, he was traveling with two co-workers, Julian Valles Jr. and Jeremy Carpenter, on the way back from that job. Supposedly one of the co-workers lived in Durham so they were going to stop at his home to spend the night. In the early morning hours of November 25, the group got off Interstate 40 and stopped in the town of Benson. There, the two co-workers said Cole pulled into a neighborhood, stopped his car, and got out and ran away. Around 3 a.m., the Benson police received the report of a missing person.

No one on the car had any reason to stop in Benson. In fact, according to an article written by News and Observer columnist Josh Shaffer, the car stopped at the corner of North Elm and East Morgan Streets, which is about seven blocks from the interstate. It’s the middle of the night, you might think, maybe they needed to stop for gas, snacks, or the restroom. Well, the place the car stopped wasn’t near any convenience stores. When his father Chris learned of Cole’s mysterious disappearances, he drove straight to Benson from his home in Florida. He had last heard from Cole the day before he went missing, on Thanksgiving, with a simple text that didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

It didn’t take long before investigators grew suspicious of Cole’s co-workers stories. It didn’t make sense that Cole would have left his vehicle and just disappeared in the area he went missing. More than a year after Cole’s disappearance, Julian Valles Jr. of Dudley, North Carolina and Jeremy Carpenter of Taylor Falls, Minnesota were arrested, along with Anthony James and Rudolfo Leon Junior, both of Mt. Olive, North Carolina. The four men were charged with felony concealment of a death, with Anthony James, Jeremy Carpenter, and Julian Valles also charged with obstruction of justice.

At the time of the men’s arrests, Anthony James’ attorney told local news outlets his client was the least involved in the disappearance of Mr. Thomas. That same news outlet, CBS 17, reported the following details:

Theory of What Happened When Cole Disappeared

The prosecutor at the time said that Cole, Julian Valles, and Jeremy Carpenter had devised a plan to drive from Minnesota to North Carolina to purchase a large amount of methamphetamine. Anthony James had a connection with Rudolfo DeLeon. The three men in Cole’s truck met with Rudolfo, and planned to purchase three ounces of the drug. After obtaining the meth, they were planning to go back to Minnesota when they drove by a sheriff’s deputy in Mt. Olive. At that point, Cole became paranoid and eventually the drugs were thrown out of the window of his truck. He left the vehicle shortly thereafter. This is when numerous stories were shared by the co-defendants. Anthony James said he saw one of the co-defendents call Rudolfo DeLeon, then someone else beat Cole with bat and he later heard gunshots. He later told police he had lied about those details.

Investigators had information that Cole’s disappearance was related to a drug deal gone wrong. They hoped the four men would turn state’s evidence against one another and help Cole’s family find him. After serving eight months in prison, a North Carolina Superior Court made the decision to reduce the bonds of Jeremy Carpenter and Anthony James. Jeremy’s bond was reduced and he was allowed to move out of state to Alabama to stay with a relative. Anthony’s bond was reduced, and he was released to a relative’s home in Sampson County. The bonds for Julian Valles and Rudolfo DeLeon were reduced a few months later, and they were also released.

All charges against the four men were officially dropped in 2019. At the time, the Johnston County District Attorney made the following statement: “The investigation into the death of Cole Thomas is ongoing. The SBI continues to follow up on all the new information. After a thorough review of the case as it stands today, I made the decision to dismiss the current charges in order to avoid compromising any potential future homicide prosecutions.”

A Private Investigator Knows

A 2019 article by Rick Curl that ran in The Daily Record from Dunn, North Carolina featured statements made by a private investigator that Cole Thomas’s family hired. That investigator, a man named David Marshburn, said he believes he knows what happened the morning Cole went missing, and he’s working to gather enough evidence to bring the killers to justice. He said he’s certain two of the men initially arrested were responsible for the murder of Cole, and the other two were set up to take the fall.

David Marshburn addressed the press at a memorial service held in Benson. He said he thinks Rudolfo DeLeon and Julian Valles were in the vehicle with Cole when the participated in an interstate drug deal. Cole was the driver, and Julian had brought money from Minnesota, where the men had been working, to buy drugs. A bag of methamphetamine was transported from a residence in Mt. Olive with the intention of selling it. But Cole grew fearful of being caught and threw the drugs out the window of the truck.

The investigator also said Cole’s cell phone had been tracked to several different locations before ending up in Mt. Olive. He said the main reason investigators and law enforcement are having a hard time getting charges to stick in the case is because the men are all afraid of the consequences of their actions. David Marshburn also said:

“The dad Chris Thomas wants them to know, of the four, one of those four did come forward and spilled the beans and told us everything. One of the still fails to tell us anything, still denies, denies, denies. But the slip us was, he basically did tell us in an indirect way what happened and he’s still keeping quiet.”

At the time he went missing, Cole Thomas was described as a white male standing around six feet one-inch tall, weighing around 230 pounds. He has blondish-brown hair and blue eyes. He was last seen wearing a red T-shirt, black pants, and a black Carhartt jacket. His family has states they will not give up their search until they are able to bring Cole home. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Cole Thomas is asked to call the Benson North Carolina Police Department at 919-894-2091 or the CUE Center for Missing Persons at 910-343-1131.

Sydney West

On September 30, 2020, a 19-year-old young woman named Sydney West disappeared from an area near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. For her parents, who were living across the country in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the whole experience has been like a nightmare they can’t wake up from. 

When I first heard about Sydney’s case, it reminded me of one I’ve covered before. Kristen Modafferi was also college student from North Carolina who enrolled in a summer photography class at UC Berkley in 2001. She went missing in June of that year, and her parents were living here in Charlotte when they discovered she was missing. Her case has never been solved, and you listen to it on Episode 12, North Carolina Cases Featured on Unsolved Mysteries.

But back to Sydney’s story. Sydney West grew up with her family, which included her parents and her younger sister, near the San Francisco area, but they moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, while she was in high school. She learned how to play the piano at a young age and eventually began writing her own music and lyrics, performing at open mic nights in Carrboro in high school. She loved art, and played volleyball and was very athletic. She finished up school in North Carolina and was excited to be accepted into UC Berkley. But the summer before she was to start college, she suffered a concussion in an accident at a lake outside of Asheville where her family was vacationing. She was still having pain, dizziness and other symptoms after they returned home that summer. Her parents, Jay and Kimberly, said they noticed a change in their daughter’s personality, and she also began having mood swings.

College Plans Halted

When her parents went to move her into the dorms at UC Berkley that fall, it was the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Sydney was disheartened to learn that none of her classes would be held in person, and spending so much time on her computer during remote learning while still battling symptoms from her concussion led her to the realization that she wanted to defer her enrollment for at least a year. Her parents told the Investigation Discovery Show “Disappeared” that their daughter was taking time to figure out her next steps. Because they had so many family friends in California, she stayed with a few different people before going to the home of friends in the nearby town of Livermore.

On the night of September 29, Jay West said he had a lengthy phone call with his daughter. She was spending the night at a hotel in San Francisco. She was trying to decide if she wanted to stay in California, go back to North Carolina for a bit, or find a job to get her through before heading back to school the next fall under better circumstances. She felt like she had let herself down, and he told her that was not the case, and they would help her in any way possible. He hung up the phone fully expecting to talk to her again the next day.

The morning of September 30, Sydney checked out of the hotel and ordered an Uber around 6:30 in the morning. It took her Crissy Field, popular spot in the area if you want to walk along the Golden Gate Bridge. The ride share driver cooperated with the police after her disappearance and said she did not appear to be distraught during the ride.

Her family was in the habit of checking Sydney’s location each day to make sure she was okay since she was living across the country from them. When her dad woke up the morning of September 30, he checked her location and could not find her anywhere. He was able to find the receipt showing that she had taken the Uber to Crissy Field, so he phoned his brother, who still lived in the area, and asked him to go to the park and look for Sydney. He then joined his brother in San Francisco and they searched for Sydney on foot until reporting her missing to the police at the end of the day.

Sydney’s parents filed a missing persons report for their daughter in Orange County, North Carolina, on October 1, 2020, because that’s where her permanent residence was. It was then immediately transmitted to the proper authorities in San Francisco and a report was filed there as well.

What Happened on the Golden Gate Bridge?

The area where Sydney was last seen, Crissy Field, has its own police force, The Golden Gate Bridge Patrol. Crissy Field is on federal land. During a search, police found Sydney’s backpack near the Golden Gate Bridge. It contained a set of clothes, some of her artwork, journals, and colored pencils. Her phone was not with the backpack.

While looking at security video from the Golden Gate Bridge, The San Francisco Police Department found video of someone who looked like Sydney, so they initially believed she had jumped from the bridge and informed her parents of their theory. Jumps from the bridge have a 98 percent fatality rate. The Golden Gate Bridge Patrol has not released the video footage to the media.

Eventually, Sydney’s dad and uncle were allowed to view the video. They could see Sydney walking on a part of the bridge close to the city with her phone in her hand. Then she turned around, having put her backpack down, and looked like she was going for a run. He said it was dark and very foggy. There was no footage of her jumping off the bridge. Plus, they said there were a lot of people on the bridge that morning walking, plus the cars driving by, while she was there, and he thinks if she had climbed on the railing of the bridge to jump over someone would have seen it. The police knew she had been suffering from anxiety and depression, so they believed she had been at risk for suicide.

The West family hired Scott Dudek, a private investigator in the San Francisco area. He also does not think Sydney jumped off the bridge. He pointed out that the area of the bridge was very foggy on the morning Sydney was there, which may be why there isn’t video of her leaving the park area or exiting the bridge. The media outlet SFGate reported that the morning of September 30, 2020, there was significant smoke from the area wildfires on the San Francisco Bay that day, obscuring the video footage.

Sydney’s bank accounts, which didn’t have a lot of money in them when she disappeared, have not been accessed. Her phone has also never been located. On the day she went missing, Sydney was wearing a light teal hoodie, tropical print Vans sneakers, and dark leggings. Her hair was in a bun on top of her head. She is five feet, ten inches tall and weight around 130 pounds. She has blue eyes and light brown hair. Anyone with information is asked to contact private investigator Scott Dudek at 925-705-8328 or [email protected]. You can learn more about this case at the website findsydneywest.com.

Do You Know This Woman?

There is still an unidentified Jane Doe from Florida that may have ties to the Carolinas. On October 7, 1995, a woman’s body was pulled from the water off Pine Island, Florida, three days after Hurricane Opal, a category 4 storm, made landfall off the Gulf of Mexico. It caused significant beach erosion after coastal flooding in Lee County, according to an article that ran in the News Press. The body was tucked into a sleeping bag and then placed into a sail bag, and according to that newspaper article, weighed down by a car battery.

Investigators estimated the woman, who had been dead 20-25 days prior to being found, was in her late 30s or early 40s, about five feet two inches in height, with dark blonde hair with a reddish tint. She weas wearing a maroon v-neck pullover hospital gown with the words “Charleston, S.C. V.A. Hospital” on the back of it. She was wearing a white metal (stainless steel) TIMEX watch on her left wrist that had red stripes on the full length of the watch band. The woman was wearing a yellow metal ring with a 2-mm Ivory-colored stone) and a lightweight yellow metal bracelet.

An examination of her skeletal remains determined that during life, this woman had a left temporal craniotomy. It appeared she had not given birth. There was a  fracture of right leg that was surgically repaired with two orthopedic screws, fracture of right arm, and fracture of left clavicle. The medical examiner was unable to determine a cause of death.

The Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers, part of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, said in a press release that “there were no matches with any Charleston area hospital nor any VA medical facilities.”

While there is a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Charleston, Virginia, its name was changed to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in 1991, four years before the body was found. Forensic anthropologists have created an electronic rendering of what the woman may have looked like when she went into the water. I’ll post that on our Instagram and Facebook pages.

Anyone with information about the unidentified woman found in Florida should contact the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at 239-477-1000.

Show Sources:

James Chambers



Cole Thomas

The News and Observer

December 11, 2016

Florida man goes missing in Johnston


The News and Observer

December 18, 2016

Florida man vanishes in Benson after jumping out of car







Sydney West

The San Francisco Examiner

October 7, 2020

UC Berkley student reported missing near Crissy Field






Unidentified Florida Woman

Unidentified Woman Found in Florida