Did a Former Ballerina Kill Her Wealthy Husband Because His Money Ran Out — Or Was It Self-Defense?
At a 2016 Republican party fundraiser at the Palm Beach mansion of former presidential candidate Ben Carson, 24-year-old ballet dancer Ashley Byers met Doug Benefield, a Navy veteran and technology consultant who had started several businesses. Although Doug was 30 years older than Ashley, sparks flew instantly.
Just 14 days later, the two were married. The couple wasted little time building a future together. Although she had only danced with small, regional troupes, Ashley wanted to build her own ballet company, and Doug was happy to foot the bill.
Ashley named the company "The American National Ballet," which was built on the goal of hiring dancers of all body types, including curvier and shorter ones. "It felt like a big break," one dancer tells PEOPLE in its latest issue. "Finally someone wasn't going to tell me that I was too fat to dance."
But things soon began to deteriorate. Doug began to run out of money, and the entire ballet company fell apart. The couple were soon embroiled in a messy divorce where they began to trade allegations of abuse and infidelity.
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Then on Sept. 27, 2020, police responded to a 911 call at the home of Ashley's mother in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. They found Doug fatally shot on a bedroom floor, bleeding in three places. Ashley told police her husband had tried to attack her and she had shot him in self-defense.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office said that Ashley claimed Doug was attacking her during the incident, but "detectives found no evidence that she was acting in self-defense when she fired multiple shots at her husband."
"Based on entry wounds on Douglas it does not appear that he was facing Ashley when she began shooting. It also does not appear that Douglas had taken any kind of defensive or combative stance," an affidavit obtained by PEOPLE reads. "Douglas was not found to have any weapons on his person or near him."
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Charged with second-degree murder, she has pleaded not guilty — and faces trial next year. She is currently free on bond.
As the trial approaches, those who knew Doug are mourning the loss of a man who they say was killed by the woman he loved.
"She found him at his most vulnerable," says Doug's cousin, Tommie Benefield. "He was her mark. She took his money, his peace, and eventually she took his life. And he loved her until the end."
An attorney for Ashley did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.