Four men have been found guilty of shooting dead a council worker in her own home following a feud involving her boyfriend that reignited at Glastonbury Festival.
James Witham, Joseph Peers, Niall Barry and Sean Zeisz were all convicted at Liverpool Crown Court on Monday over the killing of 28-year-old Ashley Dale following a seven-week trial.
The environmental health officer was killed when gunman Witham forced open the door of her home in Old Swan, Liverpool, and fired 15 Skorpion sub-machine gun bullets in the early hours of 21 August last year. Dale was found in her back garden, having been hit in the abdomen as she stood by the back door.
Witham admitted manslaughter but a jury at Liverpool Crown Court also found him guilty of her murder, along with fellow “foot soldier” Peers, who the prosecution alleged drove a Hyundai to the scene and earlier helped Witham to stab tyres on Dale’s car in an attempt to lure out the occupants of the house.
Barry and Zeisz were also convicted of murder after the jury heard they organised and encouraged the killing, which came after a feud between Dale’s boyfriend Lee Harrison and Barry was allegedly re-ignited at Glastonbury festival last year, with Mr Harrison the intended target of the shooting.
Ian Fitzgibbon, who was also accused of organising or encouraging the killing, was found not guilty of murder. Kallum Radford was found not guilty of assisting an offender by helping to store the car used in the murder.
Some family members of the defendants left the court in tears after verdicts were returned, with Barry’s mother mouthing “I love you” towards the dock, while Dale’s mother Julie cried as the jury returned the first guilty verdict.
The trial had heard how on the evening of 20 August all five men were together in a flat in Pilch Lane in Huyton, Merseyside – which the prosecution described as the “centre of operations” for the murder plot – before Witham and Peers left shortly after 10pm to carry out the shooting.
Dale was hit when Witham fired 10 shots in her dining room and kitchen downstairs, after having fired five bullets into the wall of an upstairs spare bedroom.
Barry rejected the suggestion that Witham had been working for him as he denied being the leader of an organised crime group, but he told the court he was dealing in drugs with values of tens of thousands of pounds.
Barry also admitted to threatening Dale’s boyfriend in the month before her death, telling the court he told Mr Harrison: “I said ‘I’ll come round the estate and I’ll punch your head in’.”
Voice recordings Dale sent to friends in the two months before her murder were played to the court in which she described her “terrible anxiety” and told friends Barry – who had fallen out with Mr Harrison several years before over the theft of £40,000 worth of cocaine – was “on some pure rampage”.
The phone, recovered an arm’s length from where Dale was found in her back garden, had been used in her final moments to try to call Mr Harrison, who was out with friends while she spent the night at home.
The trial heard Barry’s feud with Mr Harrison, who did not cooperate with police after his girlfriend’s death, started about three years before the shooting when Mr Harrison sided with the Hillside organised crime group after they allegedly stole drugs from Barry.
Fitzgibbon, who flew to Dubai after the shooting and was extradited from Spain in August, told the jury he had witnessed Barry threatening to stab Mr Harrison during Glastonbury in 2022.
In the days following Dale’s murder, Witham and Peers stayed in a hotel in St Helens before travelling to Scotland and Barry was arrested at a golf resort in Formby after making plans to flee the country.
Julie Dale said: “In my eyes, there’ll never be justice for me. The only justice would have been that this wouldn’t have happened. At least I can rest assured now knowing that these people are going to pay for what they’ve done.”
Dale’s family also expressed their anger towards the “despicable” boyfriend her murderers were targeting, saying she “fell in love with the wrong boy”.
In what was “the most compelling and emotional part of the case”, Detective Chief Inspector Cath Cummings said the hundreds of voice recordings recovered from Dale’s phone allowed her to narrate her own story in court and played a “crucial role” in bringing her killers to justice.
Chief Constable Serena Kennedy said she hoped the convictions would bring “some small comfort” to the family and friends of Dale.
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.”
Witham, Peers, Barry, and Zeisz were also convicted of conspiracy to murder Mr Harrison and conspiracy to possess a prohibited weapon – the Skorpion sub-machine gun – and ammunition. Fitzgibbon was cleared of those charges.
Sentencing will take place on Wednesday at 11am.