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Collingwood man guilty of murdering wife, trying to cover it up

Court heard James Schwalm killed his wife and orchestrated getaway car, fraudulent text messages and doctored video for an alibi
Ashley Schwalm, pictured in her LinkedIn profile photo.

Editor's note: The following contains graphic details some readers may find disturbing.

A Collingwood man pleaded guilty in court today (June 20) and was convicted of murdering his wife and then burning her body in a vehicle to make it look like she died in a fiery crash.

From the prisoner’s box in a Barrie courtroom, wearing a charcoal grey suit, white button-up shirt and no tie, James Schwalm admitted to killing Ashley Schwalm, overnight from Jan. 25 to 26, 2023 and hours later setting her and her vehicle on fire with gasoline to cover up the murder.

He remains in custody and was put in a prisoner’s box in the courtroom for the duration of the proceedings on Thursday.

Though his charges, first laid when he was arrested in February 2023, were first-degree murder and indecency to a dead body, Schwalm pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was convicted by Justice Michelle Fuerst.

The agreed statement of facts read out in the courtroom detailed an extramarital affair, “fissures” in their marriage following the discovery of the affair, and actions taken by James to make his wife’s death look like a tragic accident and to falsify an alibi for himself.

Ashley Schwalm’s body was found inside her 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander on Jan. 26, 2023, by firefighters and OPP officers who responded to a 911 call about a car on fire on the side of Arrowhead Road, near Craigleith.

Crown attorney Lynn Saunders read out the statement of facts.

“The body was burned beyond recognition (and) dental records were used to identify the deceased as Ashley Schwalm,” read Saunders, adding a forensic pathologist determined Ashley was not alive at the time of the fire.

“The cause of her death was physical compressions of her neck. Ashley had been strangled to death by her husband, who then dressed her in hiking clothes and placed her body into the 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander that she regularly drove to work each day," added the Crown.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 26, 2023, while James and Ashley’s two children (ages nine and six) were sleeping, court heard he drove the Outlander and his wife’s body from their home in Collingwood to Arrowhead Road. He poured gasoline all over the interior of the vehicle and over his wife’s body. He then lit the car on fire.

Investigators discovered a lighter inside the vehicle bearing the initials 'JWS'.

Forensic testing of the sock from Ashley’s unburned left foot showed the presence of gasoline, confirming the smell that first-responders reported when they discovered her body in the early morning hours of Jan. 26, court heard.

Collingwood Fire Department, The Blue Mountains Fire Department and local OPP arrived on the scene of the fiery crash at around 6 a.m. They found Ashley’s body on the passenger side after the fire had been extinguished. The driver’s-side window was open even though it was a cold and snowy morning. The added oxygen fed the fire.

About a year before she died, Ashley was having an extramarital affair, which James found out about in April 2022. The couple, who married in 2012, were seeing counsellors, but text messages showed both were having doubts about reconciling.

In January 2023, James, who was 38 at the time, was texting the ex-wife of the man Ashley had an affair with and the two expressed “feelings” for each other.

James’ phone records came up often in the agreed statement of facts. He texted a friend about not imagining being a single parent, or getting “back on the property ladder” after a divorce.

His search history from January 2023 showed searches for “alomony [sic]” and “can you see iPhone history after it’s deleted?” and “does a road flare completely burn?”

He also asked someone if it was possible to kill a person by snapping their neck. He explained his question was to settle a debate about Steven Seagal movies, court heard.

On the day before his wife’s body was discovered, James had borrowed his mother’s vehicle, a Hyundai Kona, and left it parked at Craigleith Ski Club.

After setting fire to his Outlander with his wife’s body in it, video surveillance from neighbourhood homes showed a person running on foot from the direction of the vehicle fire toward Craigleith Ski Club.

The Kona’s computer system showed it was started at 6 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2023, and driven to Admiral Collingwood Elementary School where it was left in the parking lot.

James called his mom to tell her she could pick it up there.

The Crown referred to the Kona as James’ “getaway vehicle.”

Once at home on Krista Court in Collingwood, James got his two children ready for school and dropped them off.

The Crown said both children reported hearing their parents fight. One said they heard their mom fall down the stairs. The other remembers their mom asking for her phone “so she could call the police.”

When police found James Schwalm on Jan. 26, 2023, to let him know about his wife’s death, he was working a part-time job in Collingwood. He was also a fire captain for the Brampton Fire Department.

James told police he was walking the dog that morning when his wife left for an early hike, and showed them video footage of him leaving the house with the dog and the Outlander leaving the house without a clear view of the driver. He also provided text messages he said were from his wife that morning telling him she was leaving for the hike, court heard.

The videos and text messages were “deliberately manufactured” by James to create his alibi, reads the statement of facts.

On the day of the murder, James worked a 12-hour shift that ended at 7 a.m. on Jan. 25. He texted his wife to buy gasoline for the snowblower, messages he used to explain why there was a gasoline smell in the burned car and why the window was open on a cold winter day.

He drove his child to a riding lesson and parked the Kona at the ski club.

Ashley worked until 4:30 p.m. that day, and walked the family dog when she got home.

James and his wife fought that night. He strangled her and waited until morning to attempt to get rid of her body.

There were two life insurance policies in Ashley’s name — one for $250,000 for her kids, and another for $1 million for James, court heard. Ashley was 40 years old when she was killed.

Asked if the facts read in court were true and accurate, James stood up in the prisoner’s box to say “they are, your honour.”

Fuerst convicted James Schwalm of second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Ashley Schwalm.

The Crown asked for a separate sentencing hearing to accommodate “a number” of family and friends who would like to read out statements.

The sentencing hearing is set for Sept. 26 in Barrie.

Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 15 years of experience as a local journalist
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