Four men were today found guilty of the brutal murder of a council worker ‘mercilessly’ chased through her home and blasted with a submachine gun due to her partner’s alleged feud with criminal rivals.
Hitman James Witham, 41, his driver Joseph Peers, 29, and Niall Barry, 26, and Sean Zeisz, 28 – who orchestrated the murder from a nearby flat – face life sentences for the killing of Ashley Dale, 28, in August last year.
Ian Fitzgibbon, 28, was also accused of helping to organise the killing but was found not guilty of all charges.
The case is believed to be the first in British legal history to use the recorded testimony of the victim from beyond the grave – in the form of hundreds of voice notes sent by Ashley to her friends describing the feud – to secure convictions.
During a six-week trial at Liverpool Crown Court, jurors heard how Barry ordered the attack after a long-running spat with Ms Dale’s boyfriend Lee Harrison, 26, reignited at the Glastonbury Festival.
Barry had fallen out with Harrison three years earlier over the alleged theft of drugs.
But at the Glastonbury Festival in 2022, Barry’s close associate and fellow drug dealer Zeisz was beaten up by a group including a friend of Harrison, Jordan Thompson, who the court heard was a member of a rival organised crime group.
Ashley Dale, 28, was shot with a Skorpion machine gun in Old Swan, Liverpool, in the early hours of August 21
Gunman James Witham being arrested for Ms Dale’s murder. He gave a fake name to officers
The prosecution said Sean Zeisz and Ian Fitzgibbon helped organised the shocking killing. Zeisz was found guilty but Mr Fitzgibbon was cleared of all charges
To compound Zeisz’s ‘loss of face’, his then girlfriend Olivia McDowell went to stay with Ashley and Harrison at the festival, before later splitting with him and developing a relationship with Thompson, 20.
Jurors heard the feud escalated in the weeks that followed resulting in the planned ‘hit’, with Harrison the intended target.
A sixth man, Kallum Radford, 25, was convicted of assisting an offender for arranging to hide the Hyundai i30 car used by Peers and Witham.
Ashley – gunned down with a Skorpion submachine gun at her home in Old Swan, Liverpool, on August 21, 2022 – was one of five fatal shootings last year amid escalating violence between Merseyside drug gangs.
During the trial, prosecutor Paul Greaney, KC, told how Ms Dale was shot in the abdomen and found dying in her rear backyard of her terraced home by a neighbour who called 999 following the attack at 12.30am – which happened after she had been enjoying a quiet night in watching television.
Mr Greaney KC said evidence from environmental health officer Ms Dale’s iPhone provided a ‘clear picture’ of the feud between Harrison and Barry, nicknamed ‘Branch’ because of his 6ft 7ins height.
In her voicenotes, Ms Dale told how she feared Branch was ‘out for Lee’ and that her ‘nerves are gone over it all’.
Mr Greaney said the messages were ‘the voice of Ashley describing in her own way a dispute which led to her death’.
Describing the escalating feud, Ms Dale said in a voice note to Ms McDowell three days after the festival, on June 29: ‘I know Branch has been saying madness about Lee.’
Niall Barry – one of the organisers of the shooting – in the back of a police car wearing cuffs
Joseph Peers and James Witham buy beer in the Adisco store on Page Moss Lane, Huyton, the evening before Ms Dale was killed
Peers after being arrested by Merseyside Police by the side of a motorway
Ms Dale in a family photo alongside her father, Steve. Her family were in court to see her killers convicted today
Ms Dale with her mother, Julie, who has slammed both her murderers and her daughter’s boyfriend, Lee Harrison
Ms Dale – seen in family photos – was gunned down in her home
In a text to a friend, named only as Sophie, on July 3, Ms Dale wrote: ‘Branch is out for Lee isn’t he? There’s been murder (aggro) again, so my nerves are gone over it all.’
Ms Dale then said: ‘It’s scary cos he’s (Barry) on pure rampage.’
The court heard further iPhone messages from Ms Dale on July 31, where she spoke of ‘heavy beef’ between Barry and Harrison and predicted ‘probably one of them is gonna (sic) end up in a bad way’.
And Ms Dale – who was doing well at work and had been interviewed for a more senior job – told a friend she was ‘proper stressed out’, adding: ‘I just have a bad feeling about everything. It’s horrible. Me (sic) heart’s in my mouth constantly.’
The court heard the weekend before the murder, an Audi used by Barry and Witham to travel to Glastonbury was exchanged for the Hyundai – ‘the car from which the killers operated’.
CCTV and ANPR evidence then regularly placed the car and conspirators in the vicinity of a flat in Huyton, where a room was used to grow cannabis, jurors were told.
Mobile phone and CCTV evidence then placed the killers at the flat on the evening of Saturday, August 20. They claimed they had gathered to watch a fight involving heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua on television.
Peers and Witham – a heroin and crack cocaine dealer who told jurors he had fallen out with Harrison over the theft of drugs – took the Skorpion and went ‘to kill Lee Harrison and deal with anyone in their way,’ Mr Greaney said.
Arriving at the terraced home of Ms Dale – where Harrison sometimes stayed – at 11.40pm, the two men slashed the tyres of Miss Dale’s car, setting off the alarm to ‘lure’ the occupants outside, the prosecution said.
But Ms Dale stayed in thinking the alarm had been activated by the rain. The men returned 50 minutes later and Witham kicked down the front door, Mr Greaney said.
Ms Dale was heard by a neighbour screaming ‘get the f** out’. She ‘attempted to run for her life but Witham opened fire’, shooting her ‘deliberately and mercilessly’, the prosecutor said.
Mr Greaney added Witham then went upstairs and fired five bullets into a bedroom wall to ‘send a message’ that Harrison, too, ‘should be dead’.
Pictured left to right on a night out: Sean Zeisz and Niall Barry – who helped carry out the shooting – and Ms Dale’s girlfriend Lee Harrison
Jurors were told Witham left DNA on a gun cartridge while a print from his expensive On Cloud trainers bought less than two days earlier was found on a panel from the broken door.
After the murder, the prosecution said the Hyundai was left with Radford, who arranged for it to be stored on a driveway.
Jurors heard Barry arranged to be smuggled to Europe via a ‘concealed route’ using an underworld fixer but was arrested by armed police at a hotel before he left.
Witham – who later admitted manslaughter – and Peers travelled to Scotland but were arrested after driving back into England, while Zeisz remained in Liverpool.
Witham, Barry, Zeisz and Peers were also convicted of conspiracy to murder Mr Harrison, and possessing a prohibited weapon and ammunition with intent to endanger life.
Barry and Zeisz face added jail time after police intercepted communications between gangsters using the Encrochat messaging service.
At a trial in June, Barry – who used the nickname Better Trunk – was convicted of conspiracy to supply Class A drugs heroin and cocaine, Class B drugs cannabis, amphetamine and ketamine, conspiracy to possess a prohibited weapon, a Skorpion and .38 revolver, and conspiracy to sell of transfer an automatic firearm.
Meanwhile Zeisz, known as Zest but who used Encrochat nickname Frosty Socks – pleaded guilty to the same drugs offences. He was acquitted of the weapons charges.
The pair have yet to be sentenced for the Encrochat offences.
Other victims of Liverpool’s violent gang feuds last year were Olivia Pratt-Korbel, aged nine, killed at her home in Dovecot, Liverpool, the day after Ashley’s murder, beautician Elle Edwards, 26, who died when a gunman opened fire on a pub beer garden in Wallasey, Wirral, on Christmas Eve.
Prosecutors said Kallum Radford (seen outside court) hid the car used by the killers
Radford parked the Hyundai in a friend’s driveway, where it was later found by police
Sam Rimmer, 22, died on August 16, when shots were fired at a group of men in Dingle, Liverpool, while grandmother-of-five Jacqueline Rutter, 53, was shot dead in her own home in Moreton, Wirral, on October 30.
Gunman Thomas Cashman, now 35, was jailed for life with a minimum term of 42 years for the murder of Olivia.
The schoolgirl was shot with a .38 revolver after intended target Joseph Nee – who was being pursued down the street – attempted to escape by bursting into Olivia’s family home. As her mother tried to keep the door shut, a shot fired towards drug dealer Nee hit her wrist before striking Olivia.
In July, Connor Chapman, 23, received a 48-year minimum term after being found guilty of murdering Ms Edwards with a Skorpion submachine gun.
Nobody has yet been charged with killing Mr Rimmer, also shot with a Skorpion, or Mrs Rutter.