“We should warn you now that listening to the voice notes is upsetting,” prosecutor Paul Greaney KC told the jury in the opening of the Ashley Dale murder trial.
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This trial was “unprecedented” according to the Crown Prosecution Service – the first time the murder victim herself provided the testimony that would put her killers behind bars, in a case where witnesses were too afraid or too criminal to give evidence.
Over a period of weeks before she was shot dead, through voice notes and messages with her friends that police recovered from Dale’s iPhone, the 28-year-old told the story of her growing fears over the escalating row between a gangster and her boyfriend that eventually led to her killing.
On Monday four men – James Witham, Joseph Peers, Niall Barry and Sean Zeisz – were found guilty of murder.
“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,” said DCI Cath Cummings, the senior investigating officer on the case.
Dale was an innocent woman shot dead in the place she should have been safest, Cummings said. “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.”
Olivia Cristinacce-Travis, a senior crown prosecutor on the case, agreed. She said: “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 … These voice notes were harrowing to listen to and chilling when played to the jury.”
The messages detailed how, on the night she was murdered, Dale was at home in the Old Swan area of Liverpool watching TV in her pyjamas with her dog, a miniature dachshund named Darla, on her lap.
There had been nothing unusual about the night of Saturday 20 August 2022 until late in the evening, when at about 11.40pm Dale heard her car alarm going off outside.
She messaged her mother: “The rain just set my car alarm off x.”
Moments later, Darla grew restless and appeared nervous at something outside the house. Dale took a picture of herself cosying up to the little dog, which she sent to a friend.
She wrote: “I’ve never known anything like it. She is scared of something outside.” It was the last photo she would ever take.
Unbeknown to Dale, the noise that disturbed her dog and set off her car alarm was made by her killers, who were lying in wait after slashing her tyres in a failed effort to lure her out of the house.
In the small hours that night, at 12.30am, neighbours heard a crashing noise as Dale’s front door was kicked in. She screamed as a masked gunman entered her home. “Get the fuck out!” she shouted, and fled through her living room to the dining room in a desperate attempt to reach the back door, chased by the man.
The gunman opened fire, shooting 10 rounds through the downstairs of her home with a Skorpion machine pistol, a Czech-manufactured weapon used in military combat. One of the rounds hit Dale in the abdomen, causing what was described in court as “catastrophic damage”.
The gunman headed upstairs, firing a further five rounds into an empty bedroom, while Dale made it out through the back door into the yard behind her house, where she collapsed to the ground. There she was spotted by a neighbour, who phoned 999.
The caller said: “I’ve just recently heard a loud noise in the back … I’ve stood on my back wall and the house immediately to the back of us … there’s a lady lying there in shorts and a T-shirt and she’s groaning … She’s lying in the back yard, on her back … she looks like she’s struggling.”
The first police officer to enter Dale’s home found Darla cowering in her bed in the corner of the living room. The lights and the TV were on, there were bullet holes in the walls and the floor was littered with shell casings. The officer made his way through to the yard, where he found Dale in a pool of blood. He attempted to resuscitate her but it was too late.
A smiling group photo shown in court provided evidence that Dale had met her shooter before, though it is unlikely she would have recognised him in a balaclava that night. But regardless, she would have understood who sent a gunman to her home and why.
For months, she had spoken with friends about her rising anxiety over a row between her boyfriend, Lee Harrison, and a gangster called Niall Barry, whom Harrison used to work with. It had begun three years before, when Barry accused Harrison of stealing drugs from him.
“This wasn’t Ashley’s world,” said her stepfather, Rob Jones.
Shortly before her death, Dale had been promoted in her role working in environmental health for Knowsley council, where her bosses spoke “exceptionally highly” of her, the police said.
Dale took pride in her appearance and at the same time was a hard worker not afraid to get her hands dirty. She studied environmental health at Liverpool John Moores University, graduating in 2017.
Her mother, Julie Dale, said: “We used to joke because obviously she started off in the waste side of things. Most glamorous person that you’d ever see, as you can see from all the photographs, and then she took this job on, in environmental health, going through bin bags and things like that.”
It had been hard for her parents to watch their ambitious and professional daughter maintain a relationship with a man they knew did not have a typical nine-to-five job.
And Dale and Harrison’s increasingly divergent lifestyles had been a source of tension in their own relationship – though it was clear Dale did not know the extent of what her boyfriend was up to until it was too late.
The murder trial heard how Harrison was a member of the Hillsiders, an organised crime group operating in Merseyside and north Wales selling cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines.
In June, less than two months before her death, messages between Dale and a friend, Sophie, told of an altercation at Glastonbury festival, where a divide had sprung up between a group of men from the same area of Liverpool.
On one side were some of her killers: Barry and Zeisz. On the other, Harrison and his friends from the Hillsiders. Caught in the middle were women including Dale and her friend Olivia McDowell, who at the time was dating Zeisz.
At the festival, tensions rose and Zeisz was beaten up by members of the Hillsiders. To add insult to injury, McDowell left him and spent the festival with the other group.
This triggered a violent threat by Barry, who it seemed had been reminded of his grudge with Harrison. According to Dale’s messages to Sophie, he “pulled a big knife out” and said he wanted to stab Harrison over a theft three years earlier.
Later, Dale told Sophie: “… he just disappeared for years and now someone’s obv rattled his cage. But it’s scary coz he’s on some pure rampage.”
Over the next couple of weeks, Dale found herself suffering “terrible anxiety” after Barry threatened to turn up at her home to confront Harrison, telling friends she was constantly looking over her shoulder.
The divide between the two groups intensified when Zeisz discovered his ex-girlfriend, McDowell, had begun a relationship with a friend of Harrison’s. Zeisz planned violent revenge and bombarded her with violent, misogynistic threats.
“Proper little trouble causer you mate. You fucking little rat, need to die,” he wrote. In another message he said he would “cut ye tits off”.
Afterwards, the terrified women messaged each other and Dale reassured McDowell she was not to blame for the feud. Police later described Dale as a “peacemaker” who was “trying to be kind” to her friend.
Over the following weeks, she talked to her friends about the “heavy beef” between Barry and Harrison and that “probably one of them is gonna end up in a bad way”.
In a voice note to friends days before she died, in which she described urging Harrison to finally tell her what was going on, she said: “I have a bad, bad feeling about everything.”
When Witham, the masked gunman who shot Dale, learned of the weight of evidence against him, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
In court, Witham said he had not seen Dale when he fired shots that night and had only wanted “to send a warning” to Harrison. The jury, remembering the police bodycam footage of a well-lit house, did not believe it.
The getaway car was driven by Joseph Peers, another member of the gang, and the plan was orchestrated by Barry – described in court as the “malign presence” behind Dale’s murder – and Zeisz from a flat nearby. All of them knew Dale.
Nobody had shown “one ounce of remorse”, her stepfather said, adding that he believed all the men in the case – including Harrison, who did not cooperate with police and is believed to have moved to Dubai – had lied to cover their own backs with no thought for Dale or their family.
He added: “The problem we keep coming back to is Ashley fell in love with the wrong boy.”