“The problem we keep coming back to is Ashley fell in love with the wrong boy,” the stepfather of a murdered young council worker told reporters, after her relationship led to her untimely death.
In the weeks before she was shot, Ashley Dale told her friends of her “terrible anxiety” that the alleged leader of a criminal gang was “on some pure rampage” after a claimed feud over drugs with her boyfriend.
Shortly after, the 28-year-old was found having been brutally gunned down in the back garden of her own home on a summer night last year.
Those terrified voice recordings emerged in the recent trial at Liverpool Crown Court of the five men accused of plotting and carrying out her killing after an alleged feud between them and her partner Lee Harrison, who the court heard was the intended target of the shooting.
Asked how she now feels about Mr Harrison, her mother Julie Dale, 46, said: “Some days I feel like I’m more angry towards him than I am to the person who’s actually killed Ashley because without Lee Harrison this wouldn’t have happened. ”
She added: “The way he’s acted since this has happened has been absolutely despicable. 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.”
Over the course of their five-year relationship, she said that her daughter was aware of her mother’s disapproval in Mr Harrison, saying: “I did tell Ashley on a regular basis that I wasn’t happy with her being with someone like Lee Harrison.
During the trial, the court heard since his girlfriend’s death Mr Harrison had been “totally unco-operative” with police, and had been to Dubai on several occasions.
The gunman, James Witham, 41, of Huyton, Merseyside, who had already admitted the manslaughter of Ms Dale, has been found guilty of Ms Dale’s murder. Niall Barry, 26, of Tuebrook, Merseyside, who denied being the leader of an organised crime group, has also been found guilty of the same charge.
“The difficult thing is, most of the defendants, pretty much all of them, knew Ashley and have known her on a friendly basis,” her mother said. “Never mind to do what they did, but then to get up and lie about it and talk about her.”
Jurors had been shown photos of Miss Dale and Mr Harrison with some of the defendants, including an unndated picture of her posing with her killer Witham.
Her mother said her daughter had enjoyed staying at home, and was “career driven” and had recently landed a promotion as an environmental health officer at Knowsley Council.
The court heard how Witham intended to send a “warning” to Ms Dale’s boyfriend when he broke into her home in Old Swan, Liverpool and started indiscriminately firing a Skorpion sub-machine gun in the early hours of 21 August last year.
Witham claimed Mr Harrison had “ruined” his life by stealing from him and trying to take his drug dealing customers in North Wales - but Witham denied that he had been acting on orders.
However, co-defendant Sean Zeisz, 28, of Huyton, Merseyside, who has been found guilty Ms Dale’s murder, admitted that Barry had a problem with Mr Harrison.
Zeisz, who said he has supplied drugs to Barry, told the court Barry had been robbed of a kilo and a half of cocaine, worth about £40,000, by a group called the Hillsiders, with whom the trial heard Mr Harrison was associated. In the wake of the robbery, Barry said he and Mr Harrison, formerly friends, stopped speaking in 2018 or 2019.
The feud then allegedly reignited at Glastonbury Festival in June last year.
The court heard Zeisz had been assaulted while at the festival but denied he had been hit by a man called Jordan Thompson, a friend of Mr Harrison’s.
Co-accused Ian Fitzgibbon, 28, of St Helens, Merseyside, who was found not guilty of Ms Dale’s murder, told the court that while attending Glastonbury in June 2022, Barry had shown him a knife and said he would stab Mr Harrison, known as Saz.
Barry insisted the threat at the festival was not aimed at anyone specific but admitted that he had threatened Mr Harrison during a phone call a month later on 26 July last year. The court heard Barry told Mr Harrison, “I’ll come round the estate and I’ll punch your head in.”
Less than a month later, on the evening of 20 August, the five accused had gathered in a flat on Pilch Lane, Huyton, which the prosecution described as the “centre of operations” for the murder plot.
The court heard Joseph Peers, 29, of Roby, Merseyside, who has been found guilty of Ms Dale’s murder, left with Witham to carry out the shooting at 10.10pm.
Giving evidence as Ms Dale’s mother, step-father Rob Jones and other relatives watched from the public gallery, Witham said he barged the front door down with his shoulder and then went upstairs, firing shots in a bedroom. He said he “lost control” of the gun, which was capable of firing 850 to 900 rounds a minute, and ran downstairs before going into the dining room and firing again, aiming at the wall.
Describing the shooting as a “moment of madness”, he denied knowing if Ms Dale was there, seeing her, or hearing her scream.
Later on the day of the shooting, the court heard the gunman and Peers booked a two-night stay in a twin room at the Mercure Hotel in St Helens, Merseyside. Then, CCTV from 23 August showed Witham depositing £1,000 into his bank account as well as shopping at the Liverpool One shopping centre.
On 13 September, the court heard Cumbria police officers stopped an Audi on the M6 and arrested Peers and Witham, who was seen in bodyworn footage smoking a cigarette as he was handcuffed and initially giving his name as Francis Kelly.
Meanwhile, on 24 August, Barry and his girlfriend Lucy Worley were seen on CCTV arriving at the Formby Hall Golf Resort and Spa, shortly before eight armed officers from Merseyside Police stormed into the couple’s hotel room and arrested him.
The court heard Barry had been messaging a man called Gus, described by the prosecution as “a fixer”, who enabled people to flee the country, and that police found £10,275 in a Nike bag in the hotel room.
Mr Rawsthorne said Mr Harrison told police he was out with friends on the night of her shooting and had drunk alcohol and taken cocaine. Mr Harrison had seen the police cordon on his way back from a nightclub to a flat in the early hours of the morning, said Mr Rawsthorne.
The court heard Mr Harrison said he had “no idea” why he or Ms Dale would be targeted and “vehemently denied” he was under threat. He admitted he and Barry had fallen out but said it was three years before, while he described Witham as an “old mate”.
Speaking of the trial, Julie Dale said that the six-week ordeal had been harder than she expected.
“I thought, in the early days, with some of the things that we had to do – planning a funeral and some really horrific things that we had to do in the beginning, I thought nothing can top them, nothing can get any worse,” she said.
“But, sitting in court having the defendants there and seeing them and then listening and seeing the horrific details of what happened to her and how she was just basically just left on her own to die. It’s horrendous.”
A sixth defendant, Kallum Radford, 26, was found not guilty of assisting an offender by helping to store the car used in the murder.
Witham, Peers, Zeisz and Barry were also convicted of conspiracy to murder Mr Harrison and conspiracy to possess a prohibited weapon – the Skorpion sub-machine gun – and ammunition. Fitzgibbon, of St Helens, was cleared of those charges.
Sentencing will take place on Wednesday at 11am.