A series of haunting WhatsApp voice notes and messages ultimately helped catch the killers of Ashley Dale.
The 28-year-old council worker was gunned down in her own home on Leinster Road in Old Swan, Liverpool, in the early hours of August 21 last year. Gunman James Witham, 41, forced open the door and fired 10 bullets in her dining room, one hitting Ms Dale in the abdomen as she stood by the back door, and five bullets into the wall of an upstairs bedroom.
On Monday (November 20), Witham and the three other killers - Joseph Peers, Niall Barry and Sean Zeisz - were unanimously convicted of Ms Dale's murder. The quartet were also found guilty of conspiracy to murder Ms Dale's boyfriend, Lee Harrison, and conspiracy to possess a prohibited weapon, namely a Skorpion submachine gun, and ammunition with intent to endanger life.
Ian Fitzgibbon was cleared of these three charges while a sixth defendant, Kallum Radford, was acquitted of assisting an offender. During the seven-week trial, Liverpool Crown Court heard how one key strand of evidence in securing the convictions was found on Ashley's iPhone, which was discovered beside her lifeless body in her back yard, the Liverpool Echo reports.
A string of voice notes and texts she had sent to her friends were recovered from the device and revealed a background of feuding between her partner and Barry, with the WhatsApp messages also connecting Zeisz and Fitzgibbon to the ongoing disputes.
Those heard by the jury stretched back to the aftermath of Glastonbury Festival in June 2022. Over the course of the weekend, Barry was said to have brandished a knife to Fitzgibbon and said "where's Saz, I'm gonna stab him up" - "Saz" being a nickname of Harrison's - in connection with a long-running row over drugs between the two.
In one voice note to her friend Olivia McDowell, Ashley said: "I know Branch (Barry) has been saying madness about Lee. I've just thought Branch was talking s***.
"But then, obviously on the weekend, when they're in the same fezzy and he's saying 'where's Saz, I'm gonna stab him up' to your Ian. That's when I'm like, hang on, I wouldn't want anyone who I was speaking to to be mates with him, cos imagine that did happen."
As the weeks went on, Ashley spoke of having "terrible anxiety over all the madness". She told her friend Charl: "There's been heavy beef with that Branch for years.
"If my fella sees him, it's going off like. It's gonna be bad like, to the point where probably one of them is gonna end up in a bad way.
"It's heavy like, it's scary to be honest. My head's just gone."
Ashley's voice was heard in the courtroom again in a voice note to another friend, Sophie, in which she said: "It's just giving me bad anxiety. I just feel like I'm constantly worrying and something's gonna happen.
"He's f***ing being threatened by Branch and all s*** like that. Is he gonna end up doing something to Lee?
"I just couldn't cope with that. Branch is saying he's gonna come and do something.
"He was saying he was coming down, and he never came down. I just think if he was gonna do something, would he not give him any warning?"
Of their friend Rikki Warnick's upcoming wake at Ten Streets Social, Ashley added: "I can just see it, there being murder, and obviously I don't want it to kick off. It's disrespectful.
"It's gonna be a disaster. I'd just rather him not go Soph.
"But he doesn't wanna look like he's scared, and that's why he's not going. Cos that's not the reason why, it was more out of respect in case anything does happen.
"I've just got a bad, bad feeling about everything to be honest. I just don't even know what to do, so me head's just been chokka."
Ashley went on to detail how Jordan Thompson - also known as "Dusty" - had allegedly gone on to discharge a firearm near to Mr Warnick's mum's home, where Fitzgibbon and Zeisz - nicknamed "Zest" - were present. She said: "It is so bad like.
"Dusty should not have went and done that outside Rikki's. Obviously someone's rang him and said 'Zest's in Rikki's'.
"He's flew over. People were saying that he was with someone and all that, but he wasn't.
"He wasn't with anyone. He was on his own, and he's actually said this to me himself.
"He'd gone over to Rikki's and obviously he probably was gonna do something if he seen Zest coming out of the house. It's f***ing bad like, he shouldn't have done it.
"Like, he's totally in the wrong. Lee's even kept him at arm's length to be honest.
"It weren't the place or the time. You were already looking bad and you look even worse now.
"He said, obviously I would have done something if I would have seen him coming out the house or when he was getting in a car, but he never. He said he seen (redacted) and (redacted), and he's went over to them on a bike and just let that thing off and went 'tell Zest that's for him'.
"So he actually didn't do it at the house. But it doesn't make it any better that he's went over with anything and done that.
"Lee's head was gone when he come in here that night. Lee's rang me and been like, 'I'm coming home, I'm never coming up here again'.
"He was just like, 'I just can't even cope with what is even going on up there. I was just like, it's f***ing heavy."
In another voice note to Sophie, Ashley said: "Obviously Lee hates Branch, but Lee just tries his best to stay out of it all. He can't be a***d with murder.
"We've had to proper speak about it all. I've had to say to him, you need to be honest about everything.
"You need to tell me everyone. I don't normally wanna know, but you've half got to prepare me for the worst.
"I need to know what could happen. I said don't sugar coat any of this situation with Branch to me.
"I know that Lee doesn't want this. Lee said to me, if Branch come to me and said let's quash it, he would quash it.
"He said, I don't wanna have murder with him. I don't want all this to be happening with him.
"He said, he's not worth this. He's not worth me ending up in jail or wherever, worse.
"He said, I do not want this to be happening. This murder."
Jurors were also shown a series of WhatsApp messages that Ashley had sent to her friends in the weeks before her death. In one text to Sophie, sent on July 3, she wrote: "Branch is out for Lee, isn't he?
"There's been murder again. So my nerves are gone over it all.
"Just over the murder a few years ago when they fell out. Branch is back on his high horse, dunno where he's popped back up from.
"He was in Glasto. Pulled a big knife out to Ian Fitz and said 'where's Saz, he's getting stabbed up'.
"But like, he knows where we live and his mum. Like, if you're gonna do something, it's been three years.
"Lee never took his side, and they was best mates. But Branch had been bumping Lee for ages, saying he owed so much when he was putting stuff in, the work.
"So really, he owed less. And Lee used to answer all the phones, all the running round.
"So Branch was taking the p*** out of Lee. He found it all out off Ian.
"Then Lee left it for a few weeks. Then he got robbed, and he ended up saying ye have been bumping me, and Branch was just denying saying 'the Hillsiders are filling your head with s***', and Lee said it's not them who's told me.
"Then he was threatening to come here, but he never come. Then he just disappeared for years and now someone's obviously rattled his cage, but it's scary cos he's on some pure rampage."
An August 1, she chillingly messaged her friend Mol to say: "I cba with it. I don't want to have to go to Lee's funeral next and I just have a bad, bad feeling about everything Mol.
"It's horrible. Me hearts in me mouth constantly.
"Proper stressed in ours all the time. Me nerves are gone when am out in the car with Lee, just feeling like am looking over me shoulder all the time."
Detective Chief Inspector Cath Cummings, who led Merseyside Police's investigation into the shooting, said of the force's enquiries: "A total of 3,360 exhibits were seized, of which 139 were digital devices. But of note and the most significant was the evidence recovered from Ashley's phone, which was recovered just an arm’s length away from her.
"The sheer volume of data contained on this device meant that intense attention to detail was required. For me, as a senior investigating officer, this was the most compelling and emotional part of the case.
"It's the first time I've ever seen the evidence of the murder victim play such a crucial role in a court case. Ashley was narrating her own story and events that led to her death.
"There was barely a dry eye in the courtroom as her increased fear and anxiety was played out through recovered voice notes from her phone. Her mum has had to endure seeing a series of the last messages which would ever be sent between her and her daughter - more chilling in fact, that these were only half an hour before she was killed."
DCI Cummings added of Ashley and Harrison's backgrounds: "They were different lives. Ashley has put herself through university.
"It was the proudest moment for her family to see Ashley go and get a degree at Liverpool John Moores University and graduate. She worked for Knowsley Council, and they speak exceptionally highly of her.
"She had recently gone for a job interview for promotion to be an environmental health officer. She was successful, but because of the timing of her murder, she never ended up starting that role.
"She had ambitions. She was a normal, bubbly character.
"When we got closer to Ashley's death, you heard in that voice note 'I am trying to get him to tell me everything, warts and all, because I'm scared, I don't know what's happening'. The girls in the the Birds chat, they are professional working women, not involved in criminality, not involved with people involved in criminality.
"Unfortunately for Ashley, she started to find out what else was going on that was totally separate to what she was doing. She went to work every day.
"She wanted to pay for holidays for them. She also had a second job, so when she wasn't working nine to five at the council she worked at a sunbed shop for extra money.
"She was making her own money, she had her own car, she had her own house. That wasn't his (Harrison's) house - it was nothing to do with him, and he didn't live there permanently, he just spent a lot of time there.
"I want to get that across, because I feel like I know Ashley myself from listening to everything on there and the text messages and everything. It feels very personal and that I know her, not just through the phone through Julie and Robert and Steven (Ashley's mum, step-dad and dad).
"She was ambitious to make her own money, her own life and she just wanted to settle down. It was clear that she didn't, until this started escalating, know what he (Harrison) was up to.
"Who walks around with a Skorpion submachine gun, forces someone's house and can see that there is a young female there in her pyjamas on a Saturday night, with her small dog Darla running around, and continues to fire 10 shots towards her? That's the reality of this.
"Once you've done that, you go upstairs and fire another five in a spare bedroom with the lights off. She has got two young sisters, and one of them was supposed to be staying there that night.
"It is by extreme chance that she didn't. This would have been a very different story."
Olivia Cristinacce-Travis, senior crown prosecutor from the Crown Prosecution Service, said of the voice notes and texts: "One of the key pieces of evidence that has come out throughout the trial is undoubtedly Ashley’s phone. In my experience of criminal prosecutions, it has been unprecedented for a victim to foretell her own death, which is effectively what she has done through the voice notes.
"Ashley narrated her own story, starting from Glastonbury in June 2022 right through to just a few days before her death in August 2022. These voice notes were harrowing to listen to and chilling when played to the jury.
"In my experience of having to review these, we are all human and having to listen to a young woman express her clear anxiety and fear about what was going to happen to her, unbeknown at the time, is undoubtedly chilling."
Ms Cristinacce-Travis said this strand of evidence had been indicative of a "very modern prosecution", adding: "What was unusual was how much material was on Ashley’s phone. The amount of voice notes that she used shows the realities of being in 2023 and the victim being a young woman.
"But it was all of those voice notes that essentially documented how she was feeling on each day and what was going on in her life that were so different. Hundreds of voice notes were recovered originally from Ashley’s phone.
"It is it is quite unprecedented to have a narrator, essentially, telling her own story. It's a very modern prosecution, and that's in part due to Ashley's phone.
"It's really harrowing to sit there and listen to. We're very similar ages, me and Ashley, and we have very similar lives.
"Take Lee Harrison out of the equation and we have very similar lives in terms of meeting up with friends, planning to go to festivals, holidays. She was ambitious at her job and was going for promotions.
"There isn't really any difference between either me and her or many of my friends and her, aside from who she was in love with. That really is the crux of why I think it was so chilling for me, as quite a young lawyer, to sit reviewing this, when it could really be anybody."
Paul Greaney KC told jurors during the prosecution's opening last month that gunman Witham and "driver" Peers, were "dispatched" to Leinster Road to assassinate Harrison and "leave no witnesses". They had allegedly received their orders from Barry, Zeisz and Fitzgibbon - who were said to have been "directing operations" from a flat on Pilch Lane in Huyton.
The court heard that, at around 11.40pm on August 20 2022, two men approached Ashley’s white Volkswagen T-Roc car - which was parked outside the house - and slashed its tyres, causing the alarm to sound, in an effort to "lure" the occupants out. But it is thought Ashley believed the alarm had been set off by heavy rain and, as a result, did not leave her home, where she was spending the evening alone with her dachshund Darla.
Mr Greaney said: "The men who had damaged the car were not deterred. Fifty minutes later, at about 12.30am, they returned.
"This time, they were not to be diverted from their intention to kill. One of the men approached the front door of 40 Leinster Road and he kicked it in.
"Ashley plainly became aware of what was happening. She screamed and fled towards the back door of the house, but the man entered the house and he pursued her.
"He was armed with a machine gun and opened fire. Ashley was struck by a bullet - it passed through her abdomen, causing catastrophic damage."
Mr Greaney said that "certain events at Glastonbury Festival" in June 2022 had "played an important part" in the alleged motive behind the attack, adding: "Ashley Dale and Lee Harrison, her boyfriend, attended the festival, as did at least four of the defendants - Sean Zeisz, Niall Barry, Ian Fitzgibbon and James Witham. A group of other young men from Liverpool were also present, one of whom was a person called Jordan Thompson - who was known as Dusty.
"Lee Harrison seems to have had an association with the group of which Dusty was part. Whilst at the festival, Sean Zeisz was assaulted, and his attackers included Jordan Thompson.
"This attack appears to have occurred because Sean Zeisz was, as it was later expressed, arguing with everyone for Niall Barry - who was known as Branch. To compound the loss of face for Sean Zeisz, in the aftermath of the assault his girlfriend - a woman called Olivia, known as Liv, McDowell - stayed with the group of which Jordan Thompson, Lee Harrison and Ashley Dale were part.
"It is clear that Sean Zeisz felt deeply humiliated from what had happened at Glastonbury."
The court also heard that Barry then sided with Zeisz, with this "fresh" dispute having compounded a "separate and longstanding antagonism towards Lee Harrison", who was not present at the time of the attack. The suicide of Rikki Warnick, who had apparently been "bullied" by Thompson before his death, was also said to have increased tensions between the two factions.
Mr Greaney said: "Niall Barry used these new events at Glastonbury to reignite that old feud. And, as tensions simmered in Liverpool, Niall Barry made a series of threats directed towards Lee Harrison."
After nine hours and 22 minutes of deliberations, Zeisz, Barry, Witham and getaway driver Joseph Peers, were found guilty of Ashley Dale's murder, conspiracy to murder Lee Harrison and conspiracy to possess a prohibited weapon and ammunition with intent to endanger life. They will be sentenced today, November 22.
Ian Fitzgibbon, was found not guilty of those charges, while Kallum Radford, 26, was cleared of assisting an offender by storing the car used in the shooting.
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