On the night of February 1, 2013, Ashley Rowell opened the door to his killer.
The assailant, still unidentified nearly 11 months later, shot the 35-year-old father of three, who was standing in the doorway of his Montrose home. Neighbors told police the killer then ran back to an idling dark-blue car and disappeared. Rowell, bleeding, staggered into the family room, where he collapsed. Rowell's wife, Lesli, was in the home at the time, as were the couple's children, who were hosting a sleepover for two friends.
Rowell's mother, Charlotte, who lived a few houses away, stepped outside when she heard the sirens. She told her husband she'd be right back, and made her way down Portsmouth Street, a quiet pocket of mostly older, well-kept homes. Only a few minutes earlier, around 7:30 p.m., Charlotte and her husband had walked past their son's house after having dinner at 59 Diner, a 24-hour restaurant off busy Shepherd Drive and U.S. Highway 59.
Charlotte thought out loud that they should stop by to say hello to the grandkids, but then thought Ash — as he was known to family and friends — and Lesli would probably be busy getting them ready for bed — best not to interrupt.
Now, at around 7:45, she was heading back toward her son's house, and that's when Ash's next-door neighbor came running out of the Rowell house, cradling one of the couple's daughters. The child was hysterical.
You need to get in there, the man told Charlotte. It's bad. It's really bad.
"I walked into the most horrific scene that anybody could ever walk into," Charlotte remembers months later. "I saw blood at the front door, and when I got in, I saw a group of firemen — must have been a dozen firemen in the house — and I said to them, 'I'm his mother.' I saw Ash on the floor in the family room, and I said, 'I'm his mother; please let me get to him...he'll be okay.'"
She says one of the emergency personnel stopped her.
"I said, 'No...just let me get to him; he'll be okay.' But all the man would say was, 'There's nothing we can do, ma'am...and you don't want to go there.'"
Outside a few minutes later, sitting in a police cruiser, Charlotte listened to a policewoman's questions as officers unfurled yellow crime-scene tape and detectives walked up the driveway. She pictured her son lying on the floor inside.
All she could think was: She knew who did this. It was the men who had threatened her entire family several years before. They had finally made good on their word.
She told this to a detective on the scene — she said he had to go arrest them, now, before they had time to cover their tracks.
"They probably literally had blood on their hands," Charlotte says.
The detective told her that that's not how it works. He couldn't arrest someone based only on her word.
To Charlotte, though, it was obvious. Her son — a big smiling kid, a puppy dog — had only two enemies. As the face of Duff Beer, a distributor of specialty brews, he was beloved by Houston's tight-knit craft beer community. In the seven years since Duff had been founded, Ash's life had consisted of working his ass off, drinking with his friends and customers, and doting on his kids. Charlotte believed her son didn't have a nasty bone in his body, and he certainly wasn't involved with any shady characters.
Except, that is, for his brothers-in-law. One had been fired from Duff after he was caught doing some questionable things with the company's ledger, and the other had allegedly threatened Ash's family as a show of solidarity with his disgraced brother. These two, Charlotte knew, weren't even liked within their own family — their sister, Ash's wife, wanted nothing to do with them, and neither did another brother, who happened to be a Houston cop.
Brian Harris, lead detective on the case, told the Houston Chronicle the day after the murder, back when it appeared that the case would be solved quickly, "We believe the assailant knew the victim. We'll put together his business dealings and friendships. Who would want to hurt this man? Usually, the suspect will appear as being that missing piece."
Harris had a great start. He had two men who did nothing to hide their animosity toward Ash. According to Charlotte, he had a piece of physical evidence that was sent off to a forensics lab for DNA testing. But after 11 months, it's not clear what the detectives have in their possession as evidence. They would not comment for this story. They have also withheld the Harris County Medical Examiner's report, so it's not clear how many times Ash was shot or what caliber of weapon was used.
The silence is tearing Charlotte apart. She wants justice for her son, and with each passing day feels as if the chances for that are slipping away.
Almost immediately after Ash's murder, Charlotte says, his wife, Lesli, pulled away from the family.
She would not — and still won't — let the children see their grandparents. Then, to top that, she filed a lawsuit against Charlotte and her daughter, Samantha, accusing them of forcing her out of another distributorship. A source close to the story says Charlotte gave Ash and Lesli $3 million after Duff was sold to Favorite Brands, a major distributor headquartered in Dallas, shortly before Ash's death. (Charlotte would not discuss any financials related to the sale.) But Lesli apparently believed she was owed more.
Lesli stated in an affidavit filed with her lawsuit that she started a distribution business — named DASH — with Ash and Charlotte in May 2012. The company was purportedly independent of Charlotte's umbrella company, McDuff Imports, the entity that holds all Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission licenses for Duff Distribution and an importing arm called Noble Union Imports.
DASH, according to Lesli, was primarily involved in distributing wine to major retailers. The business had become so successful so quickly that, according to Lesli, Ash told her to cut bonus checks on December 31, 2012, and January 1, 2013 — $50,000 for Lesli and $40,000 for him.
But in March, Charlotte fired Lesli, saying the checks were issued "without my authorization or knowledge." Charlotte claimed in her response to the lawsuit that DASH was never an operating entity. It never had a bank account. It never had $90,000 to give away to anyone.
In her affidavit, Lesli claimed that since she was fired from the family business, "I risk not having health insurance for my family" and that the extent of her financial damages "cannot be easily determined."
But Charlotte doesn't understand why, if Lesli was so concerned about family, she is preventing her children from seeing their own grandparents. In the past ten months, Charlotte says, she's seen them for a grand total of three hours.
Charlotte — a short woman with dark-blond hair — won't talk about the lawsuit, except to say that she probably doesn't stand a chance of seeing her grandchildren again until it's resolved. And even then, that remains in Lesli's hands. (However, Charlotte says she is considering legal action.)
Charlotte's only other child, Samantha, moved to Los Angeles a few months after Ash's death, and her husband, Wayne, has in his own way disappeared. Alzheimer's set in even before Duff was formed, but recently it has progressed to the point where he has had to move into an assisted-living facility. Charlotte is largely on her own.
"I'm very saddened...by how Lesli pulled away from the family unit immediately following Ash's death, you know, at a time when we all need to try to heal together and be there for each other, especially the grandchildren." She adds, "It is not what Ash would have wanted. Those children were his life, and this is not what he would have wanted."
Whatever Lesli's reasons are, she's keeping them to herself. After not returning multiple voice mails and e-mails, Lesli finally told the Press through Facebook, "[Sgt. Harris] has informed me that this is still an active investigation. I would appreciate it if you did not contact me anymore and respect mine and my children's privacy. Thank you."
Lesli didn't want to talk about her husband at all — a preference not shared by friends Ash made in Houston and around the country. (Ash's sister, Samantha, however, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
They spoke of a man with a big heart, a man who seemed to get as much joy from the growing success of the microbreweries whose beers he distributed as he did from his own company's growth. When asked which beer was her son's favorite, Charlotte says, "I think a lot of his beers were his favorites because of the people behind [them]...I think he loved their beers because he loved them."
Ash seemed to revel in other people's happiness. He treated Lesli's son from a previous marriage as his own. Ash knew that Texas Children's Hospital played a big part in the boy's successful recovery from cancer, so every Christmas he donned a Santa suit and took toys to critically ill kids undergoing treatment there.
By all accounts, he was good at that kind of thing because he was pretty much a kid himself. He possessed a natural playfulness that was balanced by his ex-military father and a hardworking, self-starting mother. He could party through undergraduate studies with his Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers at Emory University and then knuckle down for a degree from the University of Houston Law Center. It just turned out that he didn't realize he wasn't cut out for the legal world until after he had his law degree.
After brief internships in Florida and Houston, according to Charlotte, Ash put law behind him. Charlotte and her husband had for years run a successful beer-importing business called Noble Union, and Ash wanted to follow suit.
"Ash kind of grew up in the beer-import industry," says Charlotte, who got involved in the field after the family moved to Texas, in the late 1980s. Ash's father was a pilot for Southwest, and Charlotte was working for a friend in Boston who had started his own import business and needed representation in Texas. After Charlotte realized she had a real talent for the business, the Rowells went into business for themselves in 1990, importing for two German breweries and one based in Switzerland. Then a British brewery joined their roster, which grew each year at a rapid pace.
But the business had an added benefit: Charlotte was able to work from home and be with the children. She was usually around to keep an eye on them, but that didn't prevent Ash, a popular kid in high school, from getting into the occasional jam. Charlotte recalls one weekend — Ash was about 15 at the time — when she was driving out of their subdivision and spotted a near-empty case of one of her German imports on the side of the road. It wasn't unusual to see a stray can of Budweiser tossed in the weeds — the domestic detritus of high-school parties — but this was a $48 case of imported beer.
"We had a real sit-down session that afternoon when Ash got home from school," Charlotte recalls with a chuckle.
The passion Ash failed to find in the legal world, he found in Duff.
"We had no idea how wonderfully successful, and how well, we were going to be able to grow with this business," Charlotte recalls. "And Ash did an incredible job of being the face of Duff Beer and the goodwill of Duff Beer, and everyone in the business absolutely adored him...He loved how we were able to bring in some of the best brands to Texas and get some of the best Texas craft beers on board and help them build their companies."
Charles Bishop, owner of the Liberty Station and Cottonwood bars in Houston, told the Press that Ash "brought in a lot of brands that Houston hadn't seen at the time. He brought in Bear Republic and some other really good craft beer brands — he even gave those guys a shot in Texas when they didn't have a shot."
Those given shots by Ash's enthusiasm included Clown Shoes Beer, a Massachusetts-based brewery that posted on its Facebook page the following: "Ash was charismatic, energetic, had a brilliant mind, was a champion for craft beer in Texas (where being a champion for craft beer is a tough thing to be), and he was an absolute pleasure to work with...Rest in peace, Ash. Thank you for being a friend."
Along with Bishop's bars, Houston craft beer havens Hay Merchant, Flying Saucer and Petrol Station held a weeklong celebration of Ash's life — and the brews he brought to the city — a month after his death, with some of the proceeds going to Texas Children's Hospital. The taps at the "Ash Bash" flowed with selections from small breweries including Bear Republic, No Label and Moylan's.
Ash's favorite people and favorite beers. He would have appreciated the sentiment.
The Ash Bash kept his name in the news and kept the case alive. Back then, Charlotte still felt confident an arrest was imminent. As time passed, she was still reluctant to raise a public fuss. She didn't want to talk to reporters. But she hired a private investigator, and she poked around as best she could.
Charlotte is forever in motion. There's always a meeting, or papers that need signing. She has no interest in small talk, but she's not curt. She's generous with her time and attention. She also carries a gun.
No matter what she's doing, her son's murder investigation is foremost on her mind. She constantly hits up her PI and the HPD for information. And she's constantly disappointed.
Two years before Ash was killed, he claimed in a deposition that his family had received death threats from his brothers-in-law.
The alleged threats came from Bryan Lam, who had been fired from Duff in 2010, and from Ho "Rick" Lam.
Bryan was already in the beer business and Ash was working for his parents' import company, Noble Union, when they met through a mutual supplier. Both were interested in breaking into the distribution end of the field, and they — along with Charlotte — formed what became Duff Distributing. (Although the company shares a name with the fictional Simpsons brew, it was named after the family's beloved dog.)
At the time, Bryan Lam's sister Lesli was going through a divorce. Ash had also gone through a divorce, and Bryan thought Ash might be a good person for Lesli to talk to. The two met in December 2005, and Lesli was pregnant by February 2006. One more child would follow.
Duff got off the ground in late 2006 — Ash, Bryan and Charlotte rented a warehouse in Pasadena, and the business took off faster than they expected. But by 2009, Charlotte and Ash believed Bryan's work was slipping. His second marriage was crumbling, and at first they thought he was having trouble focusing. But then, according to court records, they discovered the problem was much worse: They were certain Bryan was embezzling.
He was forced out of the company in August 2010, and filed suit against the Rowells shortly thereafter.
Bryan Lam claimed in his lawsuit that Ash and Charlotte had conspired against him while his marriage was falling apart. He accused them of suggesting that he take some time off to try to mend things with his estranged wife, so that they could then hijack the company he helped build. The lawsuit was settled in the fall of 2012, but Bryan could not be directly contacted for this story. The Press tried reaching him through friends and relatives, including Lesli, and his brother, Houston police officer Hugh Lam, but no one responded to repeated requests. Others, including an ex-wife, his daughter, a former accountant and the representatives of a business he had sold, claimed not to know his current whereabouts.
According to Charlotte's and Ash's response to Bryan's lawsuit, he had created a shell corporation tied to Duff and used it to funnel Duff money. Charlotte and Ash offered Bryan a $222,000 payout over eight years to quietly see himself out the door. But Bryan claimed that his share of the company was worth millions.
Ash had handed Bryan a $30,000 check as a down payment; all Bryan had to do was sign the agreement, which he scoffed at, calling it a "cramdown offer." According to court filings, Bryan made a show of rejecting the check, but when it cleared the Duff account on August 10, 2011, Ash and Charlotte took that as a sign that Bryan had reconsidered.
The day after the check cleared, Bryan showed up at Duff's Pasadena warehouse. As far as Ash was concerned, Bryan was no longer an employee, and he was trespassing. Things got physical, and Ash grabbed Bryan and shoved him against a wall. The police came, but no one was arrested.
It was around that time, Ash later claimed, that the threats came: first from Bryan, then from his brother Rick.
Ash claimed in his November 2011 deposition that Rick texted Lesli two ominous messages: "I'm going to get your husband and his mom. They can't hide from me" and "If your husband doesn't handle this in a way that makes me happy, I'll take care of him my way."
Ash and Lam were present at each other's depositions, which made for some tense moments. Ash even claimed that Lam was threatening his life during the deposition. He accused Bryan of recording him with his phone and "motioning that he was going to cut my neck. I've been threatened before, and I feel that he might be taking a video to send to someone else."
Lam, in his deposition, denied any knowledge of threats.
He also stated that he had no intention of depositing the initial $30,000 payment, because he wasn't going to accept the "cramdown" offer. He said he tried to return the check to Ash, but Ash wouldn't accept it, so he simply stuck it in his desk drawer and forgot about it.
After the check was somehow deposited and cleared, Lam accused Ash and Charlotte of setting him up to make it appear that he had accepted the payout.
Turning to Ash during his deposition, Lam said, "Ash, you can sit there and look at me all you want. Off the record, you — deep down, you know you stole it, okay? Deep down in your heart, you know you stole it...I hope you sleep good at night. You can stare at me too, Charlotte. Same thing goes for you."
As for Rick threatening Lesli, Lam simply said, "I'm not in control over it."
Besides, he said later in the deposition, "I don't talk to my sister. That's — again, that's because of the relationship we have here."
But Rick? Rick was a brother. And not a cop brother, but someone he could confide in. Someone to whom he could say, according to the deposition, "Ash and Charlotte stole my company."
Toward the end of the deposition, his English faltering, Bryan Lam said of Rick, "...whether he's good or bad, he's my brother. I still going to talk to him."
In June 2013, the United States Secret Service was also talking to Rick Lam.
The topic of conversation was the thousands of dollars Rick was pocketing as part of what authorities believed was a credit card conspiracy. For good measure, authorities invited Rick's girlfriend, Jacquelyn, to the discussion. The two were arrested in June 2013 and charged with fraud. Both have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.
According to an indictment filed in a Houston federal court, authorities combed through the couple's finances from 2007 to 2010 and accused them of conducting a "credit card bust-out scheme" — a remarkably unsophisticated procedure that nonetheless is apparently easy to get away with.
Rick and his girlfriend declined to comment for this story, as did U.S. Secret Service Agent Roger Pak, who seemed annoyed and puzzled that the Press was even inquiring about a murder investigation — a police matter — in the first place. After all, why would the Secret Service care that the perp under its thumb had allegedly made death threats about a man who was now in fact dead, when this same perp allegedly stole upward of $57,000 over three years? That's $19,000 a year. For three whole years. That's Lexus money.
Charlotte hoped Rick's arrest would be a turning point in the investigation. If it was, she never heard about it. Charlotte says Ash was so frightened by Rick's text that he filed a complaint with the Pasadena Police Department. (A spokesman with the Pasadena police said they have no record of such a complaint.)
Charlotte also stated in an e-mail that she made an identical complaint at HPD's Westheimer Road substation.
"The cop there was really rude and didn't want to take the report, and asked me why I needed to report it if my son already had," Charlotte wrote. "I simply told him that I was mentioned in the threat also, and if either of these SOBs came on my property that I hold a [concealed handgun license] and will not hesitate to [shoot] them. So I wanted this report on the police record in case it came to this. He shut up then and took the report."
Lonnie Gannon, a truck driver and friend of the Rowells who has hauled beer for Duff, tells the Press that Ash confided to him on more than one occasion about his fear over the alleged threats.
"It wasn't no...passing-by thing, or something that he was just worried about," Gannon says. "It was sincere...I think he really felt threatened by Bryan."
Dave Fougeron, owner of Conroe-based brewery Southern Star and a close friend of Ash's, says Ash's fallout with Bryan Lam "took a toll on him" and that he was stressed and losing weight around the time Bryan was let go. Beyond that, Fougeron says he was unaware of the details of Bryan's departure from Duff. After all, he wasn't close to Bryan — which is why, he says, he was surprised when Bryan called him one day and asked if Fougeron would testify on his behalf in his suit against the Rowells. Fougeron declined.
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For the first year of their business relationship, Fougeron says, he and Ash didn't even have a contract. That first year hung on a handshake.
After Ash's death, Southern Star bought a fermenting tank that Fougeron wants to dedicate to Ash. He's just waiting for the right time. The tank is informally named for Ash, but Fougeron wants to make it official with some sort of engraving or plaque. It's troubling, he says, to look at that blank tank, knowing that something is supposed to go on there.
"I just miss my friend, you know?" he says.