Ashley Dale's killers have been jailed for a combined total of 173 years.
The 28-year-old council worker was shot dead in her own home on Leinster Road in Old Swan in the early hours of August 21 last year. James Witham, Joseph Peers, Niall Barry and Sean Zeisz were unanimously convicted of her murder following a seven-week trial at Liverpool Crown Court.
They 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.
The verdicts were delivered on Monday afternoon after nine hours and 22 minutes of deliberations by a jury of five men and seven women. All three returned to the same court to be sentenced today, Wednesday.
Gunman Witham was imprisoned for life with a minimum term of 43 years, and getaway driver Peers was told he must serve at least 41 years behind bars before he will become eligible for release. "Organisers" Barry and Zeisz were also handed life sentences with 47 and 42 year tariffs.
Sentencing, Mr Justice Goose said: "Witham and Peers waited for their moment for this planned killing. What followed was a murder of such seriousness that it shocked both the local community and many in this country - the use of a military grade submachine gun to kill a young woman in her own home at night in a planned shooting is beyond any understanding.
"Witham got out of the car, wearing a balaclava to hide his face. He carried that Skorpion submachine gun, loaded with 15 bullets.
"He broke through the locked front door and walked into the dining room. Ashley was in that room alone, moving towards the kitchen back door to escape.
"Witham wickedly fired 10 bullets towards her as she was vulnerable and defenceless. One of those bullets passed through her abdomen and killed her.
"Her screams were heard by neighbours. Leaving her to die, Witham went upstairs looking for Lee Harrison.
"In a bedroom, he fired a further five bullets into the wall as a clear statement. That, if had been in the house, he would have been killed also.
"Ashley’s family have shown remarkable dignity as they have listened to the evidence in this trial. This court has heard the most moving victim personal statements of Ashley’s mother, father and grandmother.
"The harm that has been caused to them and their family is profound and will last forever. Ashely Dale was in the prime of her life and she was gunned down in her own home, where she should have been safe.
"I am sure on the evidence that Barry and Witham played the lead roles in this murder, which was discussed and carried out from Barry’s flat at 267 Pilch Lane in Huyton. Barry directing and providing the gun and ammunition whilst Witham agreed to carry out the shooting, with Peers assisting Witham driving in the car to the scene.
"They travelled in the car, jointly puncturing the car tyres to activate the car alarm, and remained together as they returned to the flat in Pilch Lane. It was there that Barry and Zeisz waited, anxiously calling Witham and Peers to hear how they were progressing in the planned killing.
"I am satisfied that Witham and Barry must be treated as equally the most culpable. Witham carried out the shooting, and it was Barry who provided the gun with the ammunition and was the protagonist in the planning.
"He had the greatest motive and had threatened violence to Lee Harrison previously. Peers assisted Witham in the shooting, and Zeisz actively and intentionally encouraged the shooting."
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."
Witham, of Ashbury Road in Huyton, admitted having barged down the door of Ashley's home and sprayed the property with bullets using a Skorpion submachine gun. But the 41-year-old claimed he did not see or hear Ashley inside and was instead attempting to "send a message" to Harrison, with whom he had supposedly been in dispute with over drug dealing in North Wales.
He denied having plotted with others to arrange the shooting beforehand, stating that he had decided to discharge the gun at the address, which he said he believed was empty, on the spur of the moment while drunk and high on cocaine. Witham maintained that he had found the weapon buried in Stadt Moers Park, having learned of its existence after speaking to a pair of brothers called "Big Dave and Little Dave" while at the Everton v Nottingham Forest match on the afternoon of August 20.
Twenty-nine-year-old Peers, of Woodlands Road in Roby, meanwhile told the court he had been at home watching a fight between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk on the television with his dad at the time of the shooting. Barry, aged 26 and of Moscow Drive in Tuebrook, 28-year-old Zeisz, of Longreach Road in Huyton, and 28-year-old Fitzgibbon, of Heigham Gardens in St Helens, also said they had been watching the boxing in the Pilch Lane flat and had no knowledge of any plan to attack Leinster Road.
Radford, of Trentham Road in Kirkby, was accused of making arrangements for the Hyundai i30N Performance used in the shooting to be stored at an address in St Helens in the aftermath of the incident. But the 26-year-old claimed to be unaware that the car had been used in connection with any crime.
Detective Chief Inspector Cath Cummings, who led the Merseyside Police investigation into Ashley's murder, said: “Today Joseph Peers, James Witham, Nial Barry and Sean Zeisz have been jailed for life for the brutal and senseless murder of Ashley Dale in her own home on Sunday 21st August last year. That night, Ashley was in the safest place she thought she would be her home.
"We have heard how a long-standing feud was reignited by events in Glastonbury in the summer of 2022 which was turbocharged by the death of Rikki Warnick. A group came together to seek revenge for longstanding drugs disputes.
"The prosecution do not have to prove a motive, but in this case the motive was identified and went on to unlock the truth of this case. As James Witham stormed into Ashley’s home that night, wearing a balaclava, firing from a Skorpion submachine gun, he took away Ashley, an ambitious, bubbly, charismatic, young woman - the community rocked, her family and friends left devastated.
"A meticulous investigation has resulted in securing some answers for the family, but it will never take their pain away, their lives have been shattered beyond belief. Let today be a clear message that Merseyside Police and communities of Merseyside will not tolerate the actions of those who are intent on destroying lives.
"Together, we will be relentless in identifying those who carry or use firearms ensuring those individuals or groups are removed from our streets. I would like to thank the Crown Prosecution Service and in particular Paul Greaney KC, Alex Langhorn and Holly Menary for the successful prosecution of the case.
"I would also like to thank all the officers and staff from across all strands of Merseyside Police who were involved in the case, including the detectives who supported the major crime unit from across the country. But, more importantly, I would like to thank the family for the immense courage and composure displayed throughout the trial as they have relived the horrific events of August 21.
"Whilst they will never get over losing their Ashley, following today’s result I and the rest of the team hope they will find some comfort in the knowledge that those responsible will spend the rest of their life behind bars."