Four men are found guilty of murdering council worker Ashley Dale

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 boyfriend’s petty 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.’

Despite the guilty verdicts and hefty prison sentences that will follow, she added: ‘In my eyes that there’ll never be justice. For me, the only justice would have been that 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

Niall Barry

Sean Zeisz

Joseph Peers

Ashley Dale (right) with her mother, Julie, who has slammed both her murderers and her daughter's boyfriend, Lee Harrison

Ms Dale's boyfriend, Lee Harrison

Ms Dale's boyfriend, Lee Harrison

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.

Julie Dale today slammed Harrison’s behaviour since the murder on August 21 last year – refusing to cooperate with the police investigation into her death and leaving the country – as ‘absolutely despicable’.

She declared she was ‘more angry’ at Harrison, a former friend of Barry and his associate Sean Zeisz, also convicted of murder, ‘than I am to the person who’s actually killed Ashley’.

She added: ‘We’ve had no remorse from him. We’ve had no support from him. We have no admittance that it’s anything to do with him.

‘He’s given us any number of reasons of what he’s heard it’s to do with and none of them include him and he still carries on, you know, going about his life, leaving the country, going on holidays, lording it up, shall we say, like nothing’s happened and nothing’s changed for him and it’s absolutely disgusting, it really is.’  

Julie insisted her daughter was ‘her own person’ and that she ‘couldn’t control who she chose to fall in love with’, her daughter ‘knew my feelings about Lee’.

She said: ‘I knew that he didn’t have a nine to five job, I wasn’t happy about it. I didn’t know the full extent of what he was doing but I did tell Ashley on a regular basis that I wasn’t happy with her being with someone like Lee Harrison.

‘What I mean by that is, she had so many prospects and aspirations. She just wanted to live a normal life, whatever that was, and he was never ever going to be able to do that. She constantly strived for him to be that person and he was never ever going to be that.’

Her partner and Ashley’s stepfather Rob Jones, 39, a quantity surveyor, added: ‘He’s akin to the people who’ve done this in that he just won’t face the truth and he’s living his own lies, so to speak. 

‘They’re all collectively just a different world from the one we’ve lived in and we’ve had to be dragged into it now.

‘They all lie, they all cheat, they all steal, they know no different. This wasn’t Ashley’s world.’

This photo of Ms Dale was released on the first anniversary of her murder

Ashley pictured with her mother on the day of her graduation

Ms Dale (right) with her mother at Fusion festival

Ms Dale in a family photo alongside her father, Steve. Her family were in court to see her killers convicted today

Julie Dale (centre) is accompanied into court by members of her family

‘That’s not our life, I’ve not brought Ashley up from the age of 12 into that. It’s not her dad’s life, it’s nothing to do with us how we’ve lived.

‘We’re all professionally qualified people, we’ve all had jobs, we would go down the other path. The problem we keep coming back to is Ashley fell in love with the wrong boy.

‘It’s just shocking what’s happened. By (his) actions, Lee quite clearly didn’t love Ashley.’

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.

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.

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.

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

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 has previous convictions for drug dealing, motoring offences and assault – was arrested with Peers in a car which was stopped on the M6 three weeks after the murder. He initially gave a false name after handcuffs were placed on him.

Witham, who along with Barry is a father of young children, could be heard to quietly repeat ‘suspicion of murder’ back to the PC and was seen to shake his head. He then put his head back and puffed out his cheeks before nodding.

Ringleader Barry, of Tuebrook, Liverpool, was born to a stenographer mother and computer consultant father, while Zeisz and Witham, both of Huyton, Liverpool, and Joseph Peers, of Roby, Liverpool, are from working class backgrounds.

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.

Ms Dale - seen in family photos - was gunned down in her home

Ms Dale - seen in family photos - was gunned down in her home

Ms Dale was shot in the back garden of her home in Old Swan, Liverpool (pictured)

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.

Paying tribute to her daughter today, her mother Julie Dale called her ‘the most glamorous person that you’d ever see’. 

She recalled: ‘She was very career driven. She knew what she wanted in life, shall we say, from a very early age. 

‘She was very excited about (the) promotion. And she just wanted to sort of settle down and have a normal life.’

Julie and her partner Rob Jones, who live in Old Swan, Liverpool, close to Ashley’s home where she was brutally shot, said she ‘loved’ music festivals and first went to Glastonbury when she was ‘maybe 18-19’.

Ashley’s mother described their relationship as ‘very close’, speaking ‘every day on the phone’.

The killers had attempted to lure Ms Dale outside by slashing the tyres on her car

A bullet casing was found under her bed that was used to trace Witham

The gunman knocked down her front door before bursting inside and opening fire

She recalled: ‘Most mornings I’d ring her or she’d ring me as we were starting work and that continued as the day went on, we’d either speak on social media or we’d ring each other, we’d text, whatever it was, the communication always went on throughout the day or she’d just pop up at our house unannounced, pop in for a coffee or pop in got lunch. There probably wasn’t really a day who we didn’t speak really.’

Mr Jones said the couple’s lives had been ‘on standby’ since her murder.

He said: ‘It’s took us 15 months to get to a trial, obviously trusting the process with the police and fantastic work they did to get us to a trial and convictions but (the unknown is) where our life goes from here now.

‘You can’t rebuild. People say rebuild your life, you can’t rebuild something with the most integral part of it missing.’

He recalled Ashley as someone who was ‘always very studious, loved a debate, (an) argument but in a good way’.

Mr Jones added: ‘We always tried to make her know the values of getting a good education, being able to give yourself options in life in life and choices in life. I think that’s the philosophy we’ve always had.’

Julie told how she found it ‘horrendous’ to have to sit in court ‘having the defendants there and seeing them and then listening and seeing the horrific details that what happened to her and how she was just basically just left on her own to die.’

She added: ‘The difficult thing is, most of the defendants, pretty much all of them, knew Ashley and have known her on a friendly basis.

‘Never mind (doing) what they did, but then to get up and lie about it and talk about her. Hearing them mention her name just makes me so angry.

‘You’ve done this and you’re getting up there and you’re speaking about her and then you’re covering your tracks and everything else.’

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

Referring again to Harrison, she added: ‘Not the defendants but certain people, are meant to have loved Ashley and just gone and lied and lied like her life was worth nothing, just ‘save me own back’ and that’s it.’

Mr Jones said the defendants had shown ‘not one ounce of remorse’ and behaved as if the horrendous crime was a video game.

‘This is not a computer game, this is real life. I don’t think any of them grasped that during the trial,’ he said.

In a warning to others tempted to become involved with crime, drugs and weapons, Julie added: ‘Don’t do it, think about what you’re doing.

‘The ripple effect of all these crimes and being involved in these things, it only goes one way. You’re going to even end up in prison for a very long time or worse.

‘It affects so many people. We’re broken, our life is never ever going to be the same ever again.

‘We’ve got two children whose lives aren’t ever going to be the same again. They’re going to have to grow up now with always being that person whose sister was brutally murdered.’

‘It still amazes me some of the details we’ve heard in the trial, what some of the defendants have gone on to do afterwards.

‘I wouldn’t know how to start to get a gun or try to leave the country illegally.’

A family photo of Ashley Dale with her dachshund Darla

In a warning to young men tempted to become involved in crime, Mr Jones called for a change to stop generations of families becoming caught up in a cycle of lawless violence.

He said: ‘You’re getting third, fourth, fifth generation people of this now. You’ve got second and third generations of scumbags who are being brought up by scumbags.

‘If there’s any message that I’d get out there it’s just tell the truth and help the police in what they’re doing, it’s the only way this world will get rid of the problems we’ve got.’

Julie added: ‘It’s not schoolground behaviour this, it’s not like someone’s car’s been smashed. It can’t get any worse than this. It really, really can’t.’

She added: ‘People talk about justice and I get, you know, justice is getting these people put behind bars for a very long time and making them pay.

‘At least I can rest assured now knowing that these people are going to pay for what they’ve done.

‘It’s not going to change it, it’s not going to bring Ashley back, it’s not going to make me feel any better.

‘It might just help people start thinking these sentences are getting bigger, maybe you might think twice about it.’

Chief Constable Serena Kennedy said she hoped the convictions would bring ‘some small comfort’ to Ms Dale’s family and friends.

She said: ‘I hope those despicable cowards who will be commencing their time in prison will think about the devastating consequences that they’ve had on a family here in Merseyside.’


Related posts