The mother of a council worker shot dead in Liverpool has told Sky News her death has “left a big hole that can never be filled”.
It comes as four men have been found guilty of the murder of Ashley Dale, who was killed in the garden of her home.
James Witham, 41, Joseph Peers, 29, Niall Barry, 26, and Sean Zeisz, 28, were convicted following a trial at Liverpool Crown Court. They were also found guilty of conspiring to murder her boyfriend Lee Harrison.
Ian Fitzgibbon, 28, was cleared of the charges.
Ms Dale, a 28-year-old environmental health officer, died after being found with a gunshot wound in the back garden of her home in Liverpool in August last year.
A jury was told Ms Dale was not the intended target of the killing, instead it was Mr Harrison – described in court as a drug dealer involved in criminality – who was in dispute with a rival gang.
Prosecutors said she was shot “deliberately and mercilessly by a man who entered her home intending to kill”.
Ms Dale’s mother Julie, 46, described her daughter’s killing as “senseless and sickening”.
She said: “Her life was ended in such a brutal way. She was happy, she loved life, we practically grew up together because I had her at such a young age, she’s just been a huge part of my life.
“I just miss her. It’s left a big hole that can never be filled.”
Ms Dale had just been given a job promotion and her mother said her “life was moving in a good way for her”.
“To go in and fire 15 shots upstairs and downstairs, it’s despicable,” Julie Dale said. “There was no regard for anyone.”
Harrison was not at his girlfriend’s home in Leinster Road, Old Swan, Liverpool, when James Witham kicked in the door armed with a Skorpion machine gun and fired a total of 15 shots.
The trial heard eight bullets were fired towards Ms Dale and two in the ground, believed to be towards her dog.
The gunman then went upstairs into a bedroom where he fired five bullets into the wall “to send a firm message to Lee Harrison”, the prosecution claimed.
While it was Witham who pulled the trigger, which he had previously admitted to as part of a manslaughter charge, it was an attack orchestrated by a gang that was in an ongoing feud with Harrison that had reignited at Glastonbury Festival just weeks prior to Ms Dale’s killing.
Witham and Peers were dispatched from a flat in Liverpool, tasked to find and kill Harrison by Barry and Zeisz.
They were told not to leave any witnesses. They were described as “cowards” by Merseyside Police.
Olivia Travis, senior crown prosecutor for CPS Merseyside, told Sky News: “There’s nothing that Ashley could have done that would have stopped this happening to her because it was all out of her control.
“It was a petty feud that started over ‘he robbed my drugs’ or ‘did he say this about me?’
“There were lots of little things that led to why Ashley was ultimately killed, but none of the defendants provided any rational excuse for why a person would go out and plan an attack with a Skorpion machine gun.”
CCTV footage showed a grey Hyundai arriving at Ms Dale’s home at 11.40pm on 20 August 2022. The men damaged the tyres of her car in the hope that Harrison would emerge from the house, but he didn’t.
After the tyres of Ms Dale’s car were slashed, she messaged her boyfriend to tell him the alarm was going off. He replied: “You think you’re in a horror movie. Are you okay? Alive?”
Just after midnight, she replied jokingly: “No, I’m dead“.
Less than half an hour later she was killed.
Victim’s boyfriend did not help investigation
Despite him being the principal target and losing his girlfriend, Harrison did not assist with any of the police investigation.
Ms Dale’s mother Julie said she will “never be able to forgive him”.
“It’s disgusting,” she said. “I can’t comprehend how someone who says how much he loved Ashley could take this stance.
“I spoke to him 10 days after it happened, I sat in his presence and said to him, ‘do the right thing, go to the police, you know why this has happened’.
“And he just said ‘I don’t – I can’t give you any reason why’. And for that, I can never forgive him.”
During the trial, which lasted eight weeks, the jury saw messages written by Ms Dale, a month before her killing, in which she described “terrible anxiety” over fears Barry would come to her house as part of a feud he had with Harrison.
In one message, she said to a friend: “I just have a bad feeling about everything… it’s horrible. My heart’s in my mouth constantly.”
‘Chilling’ voice notes
Harrowing but helpful voice notes Ms Dale sent to friends about events leading up to her death were an important element that led to the conviction of these men.
They portrayed a woman clearly anxious about what the gangsters were capable of.
Detective Chief Inspector Cath Cummings, who led the investigation, told Sky News: “Ashley details the fear and anxiety as you hear these voice notes – from as far back as June to the days before she’s killed.
“You can hear in her voice this is serious now for Ashley and she is under immense fear and stress. She feels that she’s got to keep looking over her shoulder and is scared to leave the house.
“In over 20 years’ experience with Merseyside Police, I have never heard a victim telling her own story, it was really chilling.”
For the best part of two months, Ms Dale’s family sat in court throughout the trial reliving their pain. Her stepfather Rob Jones, 39, described it as “harrowing and distressing”.
He added: “It’s a murder of the highest level and if you’re not safe in your own house, where are you safe?”