Ex-Ontario firefighter pleads guilty to wife’s murder after body found in flaming car

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Former Brampton fire fighter pleads guilty to wife’s murder
WATCH: Former Brampton fire fighter pleads guilty to wife's murder – Jun 20, 2024

A Collingwood man has pleaded guilty to the murder of his wife after her body was found inside a burning SUV more than a year ago.

In a Barrie courtroom Thursday afternoon, James Schwalm pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of 40-year-old Ashley Schwalm.

On Jan. 26, 2023, Ontario Provincial Police found a wrecked SUV on Arrowhead Road in Collingwood, which was on fire. Police found Ashley’s body inside the vehicle, and later alleged James – a former Brampton fire captain – murdered her and staged her death.

On Feb. 3 police charged him with second-degree murder and indignity to a dead body. On Feb. 17, the charges were upgraded to first-degree murder.

In court Thursday, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

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Discovery of affair led to marriage falling apart

When the murder charges were announced last year, they rocked Collingwood – a tight-knit community the family called home.

In court Thursday, an agreed statement of facts showed the couple – who were married for more than 10 years with two children by the time of the murder – were growing apart.

James Schwalm was charged with first-degree murder in February 2023 death of his wife Ashley Schwalm. Courtesy of Brampton Fire Department X

The facts said that in early 2022, Ashley began to have an affair with her boss, a man named Steve. By April, the affair had been discovered and James and Ashley started to see a marriage counsellor. Ashley also got a new job.

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But by Christmas, there were still issues with the relationship, according to the facts. James told his mother it wasn’t working.

James himself had been nurturing a relationship with Alexandra, the ex-wife of the man his wife was having an affair with, Steve. He disguised Alexandra’s true identity by using a pseudonym on his cellphone so Ashley wouldn’t find out about her.

Nine days before he killed his wife, James told Alexandra he had feelings for her. She also said she had feelings for him.

The facts also said James told a friend he was worried about the financial implications of divorce. A forensic audit of his phone showed he searched online for information about alimony payments, property division and other terms related to divorce.

The night before Ashley’s body was discovered by police, the agreed statement of facts showed James planned out a narrative in which she went out on a hike and never returned.

The digital forensic audit of James’ cellphone showed he had been sending messages from Ashley’s phone to himself to prop up the cover story.

On the night Ashley disappeared, the two got into an argument. James’ children woke up to their parents arguing and heard their mother ask him to call the police.

According to the agreed facts, James told his son to go back to sleep and his daughter that her mother was on a hike. She was never seen again.

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Later, his son opened the door to find his father crying. It was around 3 a.m. when he said his father was going to take the dog out for a walk. The son, however, saw the dog was still at home in the sunroom.

Neither child ever saw their mother again.

Ashley’s body was burned beyond recognition and was identified by dental records. Her cause of death was physical trauma to her neck or neck compressions and traces of gasoline were found in the vehicle.

James dressed Ashley’s body up in hiking clothes after he killed her, the statement of facts said. He drove her body to Collingwood’s alpine ski area and doused the car in gasoline.

Police found a lighter at the scene with James’ initials — J.W.S. — on it.

As well as searching for terms relating to divorce James searched the question, “Does a road flare completely burn?”

James Schwalm was charged with first-degree murder in February 2023 death of his wife Ashley Schwalm. Courtesy of Brampton Fire Department X

Court records later showed Ashley had two life insurance policies: a $250,000 policy for the children, and a policy worth $1 million in which James was the sole beneficiary.

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About 30 family members and friends of the victim were in court Thursday, with many visibly upset over Schwalm pleading guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

A sentencing hearing has been set for Sept. 26.

— with files from Global News’ Shallima Maharaj and Aaron D’Andrea

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