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 feud with criminal rivals.
Hitman James Witham, 41, his driver Joseph Peers, 29, along with 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.
During a six-and-a-half-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.
Today, Ms Dale’s mother Julie said she was ‘more angry’ towards Harrison than the hitman himself, adding: ‘Without Lee Harrison this wouldn’t have happened.’
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.
James Witham and Niall Barry are among four men who were today found guilty of murdering council worker Ashley Dale
Sean Zeisz and Joseph Peers were also found guilty of murdering Ms Dale and conspiracy to murder her partner, Lee Harrison
Ashley Dale with her mother, Julie, who has slammed both her murderers and her daughter’s boyfriend, Lee Harrison
Ms Dale’s mother Julie said she was ‘more angry’ towards Harrison than the hitman himself, adding: ‘Without Lee Harrison this wouldn’t have happened’
Barry, who jurors heard ran a County Lines drugs ring, had fallen out with Harrison three years earlier over the alleged theft of drugs.
But at the Glastonbury Festival in 2022, his close associate and fellow drug dealer Zeisz was beaten up by a group including Harrison’s friend, Jordan Thompson, who the court heard was a member of a rival organised crime group, the Hillsiders.
To compound Zeisz’s ‘loss of face’, after he wandered off, 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.
The feud escalated in the weeks that followed and a hit was planned with Harrison the intended target.
There were calls of ‘yes’ from Ms Dale family, including mother Julie Dale and her partner Rob Jones, who shared hugs of relief in the public gallery as the guilty verdicts were returned.
But Zeisz’s father shouted obscenities.
The four men were also convicted of conspiracy to murder Harrison and of conspiracy to possess a prohibited weapon and ammunition with intent to endanger life.
A fifth defendant, Ian Fitzgibbon, 28, was cleared of the same charges.
And a sixth man, Kallum Radford, 25, was also found not guilty of assisting an offender for arranging to hide the Hyundai i30 car used by Peers and Witham.
Trial judge Mr Justice Goose, who will sentence the men, adjourned the case until Wednesday for sentencing.
Ashley – gunned down with a Skorpion submachine gun at her home in Old Swan, Liverpool, on August 21, 2022 – was one of five innocents murdered 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.
Witham being arrested for Ms Dale’s murder. He gave a fake name to officers
Barry – one of the organisers of the shooting – in the back of a police car wearing cuffs
Peers and 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
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.’
Ms Dale said she had heard of Barry saying to Fitzgibbon, Ms McDowell’s cousin: ‘Where’s Saz (Harrison), I’m gonna stab him up’.
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.
Ms Dale – seen in family photos – was gunned down in her home
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 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’.
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.
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.
Barry and Zeisz face added jail time after police intercepted communications between gangsters using the Encrochat messaging service.
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
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.
Other innocent 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, and Sam Rimmer, 22, who died on August 16, when shots were fired at a group of men in Dingle, Liverpool.
A fifth killing involved grandmother Jacqueline Rutter, gunned down in her home in Moreton, Wirral, in October 2022. Nobody has been charged over her death.
Gunman Thomas Cashman, now 35, was jailed for life with a minimum term of 42 years for the murder of Olivia.
She 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 caught for killing Mr Rimmer, also shot with a Skorpion.