By Brett Milam
The tips of his fingers were the last image James Ward’s older brother and friends would see of him before he was pulled under by the current of the Little Miami River.
But that image on that fateful day, June 9, would not be the lasting image James left behind. Rather, it would be that of a teenager, 17-years-old, who was on the precipice of turning his life around, leaving behind mistakes of the past.
He had cut more than 100 pounds, going from 293 pounds to 173, because the Navy Seals became his calling. The military became a salvation for a kid just looking for some direction, a foothold in the world that had, at times, because of his biracial skin color or preconceptions, spit him back out.
James, born on Jan. 5, 2001, was just a kid looking for a chance: to be something other than what people perceived him as; to make himself anew with a rap career or the Navy Seals; and even, to have one more moment with his grandmother, who he shared a special bond with.
Rachel Carpenter, James’ mom, met with The Clermont Sun at her home in Goshen, to talk about what happened on June 9.
“James was a good kid; he had his struggles just like everybody else,” she said. “He was very outgoing, he never knew a stranger.”
He loved to play basketball, hang out with his friends and he was into rap and pranks on his mom.
One such prank was to play upon his mother’s fear of bed bugs.
“I don’t want no bed bugs because if I ever see a bed bug, we won’t have nothing left in this house because everything will be in the dumpster,” Rachel said, adding that she’d move so fast out of the house you wouldn’t even know it.
So one day, Rachel said James told her he had a bed bug in his bed.
“I said, don’t tell me that, is there really a bed bug?” she said.
James said, yes, and so Rachel started stripping the bed, only to learn that it was just a little black bug, not a bed bug.
“I’d be looking for bugs the rest of the day. I couldn’t stand bed bugs,” she said. “He was a prankster, he loved to prank people.”
Rachel’s sister, Becky Neal, said James loved his family, no matter if it was siblings or cousins or the “best aunt in the world.”
“He loved his family; he was a turd at times, but he would do anything for anybody, if he could do it,” she said. “In my opinion, he probably had taken his last breath trying, if someone really needed it.”
James also loved to rap. His rap name was 2Turnt.
“I didn’t always agree with the lyrics, it wasn’t my favorite, but I have to admit that, it was well, the way he rapped it,” she said. “There was always some sort of feeling that he had in his lyrics.”
The issue of being biracial and dealing with it came up quite often, Rachel said.
“It’s why he felt like he couldn’t work up here [in Goshen] because of being biracial,” she said, as he felt people were judging him, looking at him differently.
In those moments, Norris, James’ stepdad, would try to help James work through those frustrations.
“Well, I really tried to explain it with some history and hope he would get the understanding of it through that,” Norris said. “Sometimes he would just make his own assessment of it. I mean, you can tell him and hope he grasp the concept, but you tell him, then he’ll make his own determination, is mostly what happened. Most of the time, he’d get an understanding of it. He’s a good listener. It’s how he learned a lot of stuff.”
On the day of the drowning, Rachel said she was at home when she got the call at 6:56 p.m. from Chris Packer, one of James’ friends.
“From then on, he said that Jacob and James were both gone,” she said.
Gone meant “gone in the river” near Camp Dennison Memorial Park.
“At that moment, threw the kids in the car and we went,” she said. “I knew where Camp Dennison was, but at that point in time, I didn’t.”
Her son Jacob then called, confirming that James had gone into the river.
“He told me that he tried multiple times, he said I seen his fingertips and I missed,” she said. “He said they were trying to swim across the river.”
Rachel said Jacob was running along the river bank, with the water running fast, getting his arms and legs cut up trying to get to James after he went in.
“He said he failed him and I said you didn’t fail your brother, you tried, that’s all you could do,” Rachel said.
James was 6’3, a “big boy,” Rachel said, 173 pounds, but when a current wants to get you, it will.
“I’m totally confused,” she said, about the timeline of events.
The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department first gets a call around 4:41 p.m.
“I’m very confused as to why I get called at 6:56,” she said. “I don’t think, in my opinion, the chain of commands were not followed the way they should have been followed.”
Rachel said she has a lot of unanswered questions about the investigation into her son’s death.
“I will say this, if the chain of command was followed the proper way, there could have been a huge possibility that my son could have possibly been saved,” she said. “It would have been a rescue instead of a recovery.”
The last conversation James had with his mother, he was upset because he wanted to work but there were no jobs that were available for him in Goshen; they were all in Amelia.
“I told him, son I can’t get you there, I’m the only driver,” she said, because she worked third shift. “He talked about he was going to go to the military because he had nothing. He always called his self the ‘lost child’ because he never understood how a step dad could love him but his real father don’t, didn’t; hadn’t seen him in years.”
Rachel said 2003 was the last year James’ biological father saw him. Norris has been the primary father figure in James’ life.
James’ last conversation with Norris was to apologize because he was “having a meltdown” because his parents wouldn’t take him to the store.
“He was telling me about what he wanted to do in life, that he felt like he had nothing, he had nobody to help him, so he said he was going to help himself by going into the military,” Norris said. “He was explaining how he wanted to be buried, how he wanted to be beside his grandmother and why he was getting the tattoo he was getting and they were for his grandmother.”
James had a wolf tattoo on his arm and told his parents he wanted to add the moon, clouds and trees. And also, a river that ran through it all.
He also wanted his grandmother’s name, Esthner Hutchinson, as a tattoo.
Rachel said James missed his grandmother a lot; they had formed a special, close bond. They would play cards together.
“James was making huge changes in his life,” Rachel said. “He hadn’t been in juvenile since April of last year; he quit talking to the friends he was associating himself with. He wanted to come off probation and there was a possibility that he was going to come off of it the 26th of this month.”
James was homeschooled, always talking about being ready to graduate.
In the mail, the same day as the phone call that led her to Camp Dennison and news she never wanted to hear, was a report card from Greater Ohio Virtual School.
James only needed two classes, or four credits, to graduate.
“I can’t wait for James to get home to see this,” Rachel said she told Norris.
Then the nightmare of a phone call came.
Jacob, the 18-year-old brother who had been there when James died, was having a hard time dealing with it.
“You don’t know what I seen; he died right in front of me and I couldn’t get him,” Rachel said Jacob had said to her.
But seeing James at the funeral helped to give him some closure, Rachel said. And it was closure for her, too, so she could know it was her son that she was burying.
As it turns out, James was buried next to his grandmother in Goshen, who died in August of 2015 from a pulmonary embolism.
On the Saturday after the June 15 funeral, the family went down to Camp Dennison to the spot where James had died.
Rachel said she went down to the river bank by herself and she just broke down and put her hands on her knees.
That same day was the Amazing Charity Race in Loveland near the river, along with kayakers on the river itself.
Rachel had written a message to James on the back of a bottle and put it in the river. The bottle floated up the river.
“Nobody heard me and I said, son, can you take me to where you guys started?” she said. “I wanted to know where you started.”
She followed the bottle up the river, going around the kayaks and the bottle stopped by the a log. That log was where James’ friends had been the day before to put flowers and such.
Rachel then took a photo of the log with the flower in it and showed the photo, where the lighting shows the contours of a wolf’s head.
“I felt his presence there the whole time I was there. I wanted to jump in that water it was so calm,” she said. “After they recovered his body, my oldest son, Jacob, he went and got a wolf on his arm and he put James name under it. I was so proud of Jacob and his friends at the funeral.”
All of them had spoken at the funeral about James. One boy said if James didn’t make you mad or happy, he didn’t like you, which Rachel said was so true and stuck with her.
Jacob spoke at the funeral, too, about how he tried to get his brother and feeling like he failed, but at the end of his speech, he said the “wolf gang will remain.”
All the boys are apparently getting the wolf tattoo as well.
“It sucks losing a child. I didn’t want to know this,” she said. “He had so much going for him and he had a life ahead of him, but he got robbed of it.”
Reach Brett Milam at email@example.com or via phone at 513-732-2511 ext. 119.
Editor’s Note and correction: In last week’s edition of The Clermont Sun on June 21, in the initial story of James Ward’s drowning, The Sun published a photo of James’ brother, Jacob, to accompany the story and misidentified him as James. The Sun regrets such a terrible mistake and apologizes to the family.