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Watch the Dateline episode "The Bridge" now

Andrea Canning reports.

It was a hot August afternoon in 2014 when 28-year-old James Chambers suddenly vanished from Fayetteville, North Carolina. James had gotten off work and was supposed to be at a lake where he had a second job as a lifeguard. But he never showed. His family said this wasn’t like him -- he always kept in close contact.

After days without contact, a clue soon emerged. James’s father Pete had asked a co-worker named Howard Ashleman to take his son home the day he vanished. Howard was just 21, friendly, laid back and cooperative. He said he dropped James off at his house and had no idea what happened to him afterwards.

Fayetteville Police questioned Howard and he fully cooperated. His story seemed to add up, until he mentioned something strange... A few days after James disappeared, Howard said he sold his truck to a scrapyard, where it was crushed and compacted.

Police were growing suspicious of Howard but had no hard evidence with which to arrest him, especially since James was still only considered a missing person.

Years passed and the investigation grew cold, until Howard mentioned a friend that he was with the afternoon James disappeared: Reno Parks.

Reno wouldn’t talk to police, but he would talk to David Marshburn, a local private investigator enlisted by the family.

Marshburn got a meeting with Reno and was stunned by what he heard. According to Reno, he saw Howard shoot James. Then Reno said Howard later did the unthinkable: He dismembered the body, put the remains in three plastic bags and threw them off a remote bridge.

Since Reno wouldn’t talk to detectives, the investigation stalled.

But not for James’s mother, Rachel Wellhouser, and her husband Dennis.

Several times a year they would drive some 20 hours straight from their home in Texas to search on their own for James.

As detectives gathered more information, they determined the bridge Reno was talking about must have been the Keener Bridge in rural Sampson County – about 40 miles from Fayetteville.

In the Spring of 2021, another large search was conducted, and Dateline was there.

For two long days, search teams on foot and horseback scoured the forest near Keener Bridge. But once again, no trace of James was found.

Learn more about the search for James and how search teams focused on the Keener Bridge:

While James’s parents were deeply disappointed, they vowed to keep looking, until they can finally bring James home. His mother, Rachel, has another search scheduled for this fall.

Loved ones remember James as a funny and selfless friend and son.

You can watch our full episode, “The Bridge,” now.

You can also listen to the podcast.

After watching the episode, watch more of the confession of a killer…