It was a rainy Saturday evening in August 2022, and Ashley Dale was enjoying a quiet night in front of the television.

The 28-year-old Knowsley Council employee, days away from starting a promotion at work, was sat in her pyjamas having a drink on the sofa in the living room of her home on Leinster Road in Old Swan, her dachshund Darla her only company. But the storm clouds outside had been gathering for weeks, months, perhaps even years.

At around 11.30pm, Ashley's peace and calm would be disturbed by the alarm on her Volkswagen T-Roc sounding outside. She mistakenly believed this had been as a result of the inclement weather, but in actual fact her tyres had been slashed by a hit team who, an hour later, would barge through her front door and shoot her dead with a Skorpion submachine gun.

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The gunman, James Witham, and his driver, Joseph Peers, had been dispatched to the scene by Niall Barry. A tall, stocky trafficker of both drugs and firearms nicknamed "Branch", his "beef" had been not with the slightly built young woman who fell victim to it, but instead with her boyfriend Lee Harrison.

The two men had once been the best of friends as they worked together in the trade of illicit substances. But theirs is an industry where loyalties can notoriously switch at the drop of a hat, and their partnership would eventually devolve into a deadly feud.

Branch's dispute with the man known as "Saz" began to take root around 2018, when a quantity of cocaine and cannabis worth somewhere in the region of £40,000 was robbed from a stash house under Barry's control. The Hillsiders - an organised crime group based on the Hillside estate in Huyton, with whom Harrison had been affiliated - were apparently to blame.

This was set against a background in which Barry had been "taking the p***" out of him by "bumping" him, adulterating drugs before supplying them to him in order to keep a bigger share of the profits for himself. And Ashley's partner supposedly remained loyal to these newfound enemies.

In the aftermath, Branch had seemingly dropped off the radar to an extent. He would not re-emerge until the early summer of 2022, when two key events saw fuel poured on the embers of their row, ultimately causing the flames to reignite and explode.

First came Glastonbury. Ashley and Harrison were there at the iconic festival, returning for the first time since the covid pandemic, as were Barry, Witham, Ian Fitzgibbon and Sean Zeisz.

The latter, who went by the nickname Zest, was in attendance with his girlfriend Olivia McDowell. He spanned both sides of the Branch v Saz conflict, being a close ally and criminal associate of Barry's and retaining ties with Harrison by virtue of his partner's friendship with Ashley.

But Zeisz's five-year romance with Olivia would not survive the weekend and apparently led to the Branch and Saz schism opening wider still. The exact circumstances are something of a moot point, but the long and short of it was that Zest was attacked on the Saturday night of the festival.

Jordan Thompson's name was thrown into the mix as being one of those responsible for the assault. And, to add insult to injury, Liv then "legged" Zeisz and took up with this supposed assailant - also a Hillsider, and known as "Dusty".

Glastonbury also saw Barry abandon his keeping of a low profile. These events are again disputed, but Fitzgibbon reported that Branch had brandished a knife to him in the early hours of Saturday morning and demanded: "Where's Saz? I'm gonna stab him up."

Fitzgibbon too was somewhat caught in the middle of Barry and Harrison. He had been a mate of Saz's for around a decade and Liv was his cousin, but - according to the prosecution at least - his allegiance would ultimately switch towards Branch due to events in the following weeks, centring around the tragic death of Rikki Warnick.

Aged only 26, he was struck by a train near to Huyton Station on the evening of July 21 and killed instantly. He had taken his own life after apparently being "bullied" by Thompson, who had branded him a "grass" in social media posts following a drugs bust by police.

Rikki was well-known and widely liked in the area - with Harrison, Barry, Zeisz and Fitzgibbon among his close friends - and hundreds attended his funeral and wake at Ten Streets Social. But Saz was left unable to attend after Dusty served to increase the temperature further by allegedly discharging a firearm near to Mr Warnick's mum's home following a balloon release in his memory.

Zeisz and Fitzgibbon were among those present at the address at the time of the incident. The gunman had reportedly been riding by on a bike when he opened fire before shouting: "Tell Zest that's for him."

The rumour mill had it that Harrison had been in tandem with Thompson when he had launched his gunshots. Whether that had been the case or not, now, as per the crown's case, nobody was able to straddle both sides of Branch and Saz's beef.

Against this background, there came another dispute over drugs between Barry and Harrison - who had reportedly been making inroads into Branch's turf in North Wales, where he used the "Kyle Line" in order to supply heroin and crack cocaine in and around the Rhyl area in a county lines model. Witham, who claimed that the operation was actually his, stated in his evidence that Saz had even stolen the gang's graft phone and put the frighteners on one of their runners, who was supposedly told in no uncertain terms that he could not continue to deal on the patch.

The feud was by now a complex, tangled web of fighting over drugs, women and recriminations over Rikki's death. Whichever reason was at the forefront of the minds of Barry and his cohorts by the early hours of August 21 2022, it all came bursting through Ashley Dale's front door in a murderous frenzy and a hail of bullets.

Throughout the previous 24 hours, Witham had not looked much like the man who would later shoot her dead in cold blood. In the morning of August 20, Fitzgibbon had given him a lift to Taskers Sports in Aintree to buy a black pair of size 8.5 On Cloudflyer trainers.

In the afternoon, Goodison Park with his dad and his son, watching Everton snatch a late point from newly-promoted Nottingham Forest thanks to an 88th minute Demarai Gray equaliser. Afterwards, Wetherspoons with his mate Michael Kershaw and a visit to a Thai massage parlour on County Road.

From there, Witham took a taxi back to Pilch Lane in Huyton and a two-bedroom flat above a hairdressers which had partially been converted into a cannabis farm. It would become otherwise known as the "centre of operations" for the plot to kill Lee Harrison and "leave no witnesses behind".

Barry had been there since the previous evening, apparently tending to his crop, and would be joined, one by one, by his alleged co-conspirators. First Peers and Fitzgibbon, then Witham, then Zeisz - adequately stocked up with supplies of strawberry and lime Kopparberg cider, Dairy Milk, Wine Gums and takeaways and with a dodgy box to stream the boxing and UFC.

But the fighting would merely be background music to the true business of the evening. At 10.10pm, Witham and Peers left in a Hyundai i30N Performance to pick up the Skorpion - by chance the exact same weapon Barry had secretly discussed the transfer of two years earlier on encrypted communications platform EncroChat - and perform a reconnaissance mission in the area around Ashley's home.

Fitzgibbon and Zeisz were said to have kept tabs on their progress in a series of text messages and calls before Peers ditched his phone at his home on Woodlands Road in Roby in order to beef up his cover story, that he had been watching the boxing there with his father. He then got back behind the wheel and headed with Witham to Leinster Road, where, shortly before 11.40pm, they slashed the tyres of Ms Dale's car - one using one blade to knife two of the wheels on one side of the vehicle, another using another weapon to target one tyre on the other side.

They had failed to lure Ashley out of the address, and Harrison, it would later emerge, was not even there. He was on a night out with Dusty in Liverpool city centre.

Witham and Peers left, but by 12.30am they were back. The assassin knocked down the front door, and Ashley sprang up from the sofa.

In terror, she screamed "get the f*** out", but was ruthlessly pursued through her house. Witham, clad in a balaclava, hit the trigger of the military grade firearm and unloaded a burst of nine shots.

Ashley had made it through her dining room to within inches of her back door, but was struck in the abdomen by one of the flying bullets. She staggered out of her kitchen and into her yard, where she lay gravely wounded and placed one final phone call to Harrison.

The call did not connect, and she was too seriously injured to even be able to speak in the haunting voicemail which she left with her boyfriend. Witham meanwhile ventured upstairs unconcerned and unleashed another volley of gunfire into the wall above the bed in the spare room.

Then, Peers whisked him away into the night. By 1.25am, they were back at Pilch Lane for the debrief - albeit in the absence of the now departed Fitzgibbon.

He was the first out of the flat, and the first out of the country. Two days after the shooting, he flew to Dubai from Birmingham Airport with his little sister.

Fitzgibbon was out of the country for nearly 12 months, apparently fearing a knock at the door from the police and reprisals as a result of his association with the gunman on the night in question . It would only be in summer this year that he would be arrested in Spain and extradited back to the UK after being located in Malaga on August 9 2023.

Barry too tried to leave the jurisdiction, enlisting a mystery man known only as "Gus the Fixer" to smuggle him to mainland Europe in the top bed of a lorry. But, before he could make it to France or Amsterdam, the police caught up with him at the Formby Hall Hotel, where he had been shacked up with his girlfriend before armed officers stormed room 223 late on the evening of August 24 and nicked them both.

Witham and Peers meanwhile hid out at the less upmarket Mercure Hotel in St Helens town centre for two nights, then travelled onwards to Scotland. The hitman went on a shopping spree with his son in Liverpool ONE - dropping hundreds of pounds at Footasylum and the Everton club shop, eating in Zizzi Italian restaurant and depositing £1,000 at Lloyds Bank on Church Street - before heading north of the border.

They were both detained when the black Audi Q7 they were being driven back southwards in was stopped on the M6 in Cumbria on September 13, not far from Tebay Services. Witham gave a false name of "Francis Kelly" and even had the gall to claim that he was being "stitched up".

But, unbeknown to him, crime scene investigators had discovered a footprint from his new pair of trainers on the front door of 40 Leinster Road. On his way out of the address, he had inadvertently left his mark behind by treading on the panel he had knocked down when forcing his way in.

Witham was further linked to the crime scene after his DNA was found on a bullet casing recovered from the upstairs of the property. It flew in the face of the farcical account he eventually gave to the jury after these links forced him to admit manslaughter.

Continuing to deny murder, he instead claimed that he had decided on the spur of the moment to shoot up Harrison's house while drunk and high on cocaine in order to "send a message" - with the feuding over the Kyle Line having been between only him and Saz. Witham maintained that he had not plotted with any of his co-defendants to pre-plan the shooting and had found the already loaded gun buried in Stadt Moers Park, having, by good fortune, learned of its existence earlier that day after speaking to a pair of brothers he called "Big Dave and Little Dave" while at the Everton game.

Peers was not believed either. His version of events - that the shooter had taken him on a "magical mystery tour" around East Liverpool against his will after they left Pilch Lane, causing a five-minute journey to his parents' house to take up to an hour to complete, and that he had spent much of the next three weeks in his company in blissful ignorance that he had killed Ashley - was too tall a tale to swallow.

The "organisers", Barry and Zeisz, fell with them. Their association within the flat and the various rumbling disputes, coupled with the phone contact and the shady movements in the aftermath, were too strong for them to feign innocence.

Following a seven-week trial at Liverpool Crown Court and nine hours and 22 minutes of deliberations, each was 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 - although Fitzgibbon was cleared of all three charges. James Witham, Joseph Peers, Niall Barry and Sean Zeisz will now face somewhere in the region of the next 30 years behind bars for the barbaric execution of a young, innocent woman that was as senseless and needless as it was terrifying and ruthless.

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