James Witham's tall tales from the witness box might have been comedic had they not come against such a horrific and tragic background.

Over the course of two days in the sixth week of his trial at Liverpool Crown Court, the dad with a taste for Thai massage parlours regaled jurors with his larger than life stories of brothers Big Dave and Little Dave. Of digging up a loaded Skorpion submachine gun in a 220-acre park only five minutes after he had set to work with a shovel which, by good fortune, he happened to have stashed in the boot of his car.

But Witham was telling these outrageous lies about the minutes and hours leading up to the moment he cut short the life of a young woman, one full of promise and hope, at the age of only 28, when he discharged a hail of bullets in her dining room as she fled for her back door in terror. He was standing only metres in front of the grieving family of Ashley Dale as he attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of the jury.

READ MORE: 'Ridiculous' scenarios 'liar' Lee Harrison gave Ashley Dale's mum after her murder

READ MORE: Ashley Dale was sat in pyjamas watching TV when James Witham kicked down her front door and executed her

And he was not just lying to their faces for the fun of it. The gunman was bidding to get himself and his mates off with murder.

Witham was following the lead of the other member of the "hit team", Joseph Peers. Once a promising boxer who counted professional footballers among his friends, the trained gasfitter was tasked with being the shooter's right hand man - including whisking him to and from the scene in Old Swan.

Not that he would ever admit it. While Witham was forced to admit his part in the plot after his new trainers left behind footprints within 40 Leinster Road and his DNA was found on a bullet casing within Ashley's home, Peers played dumb and claimed a series of extraordinary events had been unfolding all around him without his knowledge.

He was the first of the four men who conspired to plot the shooting, in which Ashely's partner, Lee Harrison, was their primary target, to take the stand, and insisted that he had been at home watching the Anthony Joshua v Oleksandr Usyk fight with his dad at the time. While he and the gunman had been seen on CCTV leaving a flat at 267 Pilch Lane in Huyton, described as the "centre of operations" on the night of August 20 2022, together around two-and-a-half hours before the murder, he claimed he had been intending to walk the five minutes back to his mum's house but was instead collared by the killer-to-be on the doorstep.

Witham, he said, had insisted on giving him a lift home, and he eventually gave in. But, instead, he had driven him in the exact opposite direction - towards the scene of the crime - in the Hyundai i30N Performance that would later be used as the killer's transport.

First, Peers alleged, they had visited the home of an associate, David McCaig. The man known as "Davo" had apparently crashed said car during a trip to North Wales the previous day and, as of yet, had not followed through on a promise to fix the damage.

Then, a detour down Glen Road - a mere "stone's throw" from Ashley's home. Simply a wrong turn from Witham, rather then a "recce".

From there, they had a visited an acquintance on Huyton House Road in order to pick up drugs. In the event, what should have been a short stretch of the legs home had turned into what would later be termed as an hour-long "magical mystery tour" around East Liverpool.

Peers was late for the fight, but now it was finally time to cosy up to watch the boxing in his pyjamas with his dog after making a cup of tea for his mum. Then, at around 1am, Witham unexpectedly returned and asked him if he wanted to head back to Pilch Lane.

And Peers, apparently having nothing better to do in the early hours, obliged - changing back out of his PJs and heading back out into the night on foot. Sadly, the CCTV system at his home was damaged before anyone thought to retrieve the footage which would, presumably, have been able to confirm his movements.

Joseph Peers was convicted of the murder of Ashley Dale
Joseph Peers was convicted of the murder of Ashley Dale

After a few more hours idly passing time in the flat, he returned home once more. The next morning, Witham showed up at his door again and asked him if wanted to go for a "swim, steam and sauna" at the Mercure Hotel in St Helens.

Peers agreed and booked them a two-night stay, although the facilities they were visiting for had actually been out of order at the time. Then, they took not one but two trips to Scotland together - interspersed by a second stay at the Mercure.

Witham, he said, had asked him to sort him out with lifts north of the border, he seized on the opportunity to visit family up there. All the while, Peers was completely oblivious to what his travel companion had done - he had certainly not been keeping a low profile away from Liverpool as one of the two men directly involved in the shooting.

Prior to all of this, his close mate Sean Zeisz had not once discussed with him his relationship troubles - said to have been a key element in the "beef" which led to Ashley's murder - which had been bubbling away while the two of them were on a month-long holiday in Spain and Portugal. Nor had he any idea that most of his mates were involved in drug dealing, or that a cannabis farm was growing inside the Pilch Lane flat.

Witham meanwhile was telling lies from the very first moment he felt the long arm of the law on his shoulder. Upon his arrest he gave a fake name of "Francis Kelly" to arresting officers, then told the police that he was being "stitched up" once taken into custody.

As recently as August this year, his intention was to claim at trial that he had had no involvement whatsoever in the shooting. Then, in September, Witham finally admitted being the man with his finger on the trigger when he pleaded to manslaughter.

He had apparently come clean as his conscious had got the better of him, and he was unable to contain his guilt any longer. Still, he maintained that he had not seen nor heard Ashley as she ran screaming away from him and that he had only been intending to "send a message" to Harrison rather than hurt anyone.

By chance, his latest account was one which completely exonerated Peers, Zeisz and fellow conspirator Niall Barry of any blame. This time, his story was that he had decided on the spur of the moment to "shoot up" the house while drunk and high on cocaine in order to "send a message" to Harrison.

Witham maintained he, and not Barry, had been the one who had the feud with Ashley's partner, as had been spelled out in no unsparing terms in a series of texts and voice notes discovered on her phone following her death. At the time he had left the Pilch Lane flat, he told the jury, he had not even been entertaining any thought of his later crime.

But, having apparently felt "belittled" after he was supposedly asked to leave the address by Barry due to his rowdy behaviour, he had become incensed by seeing a picture on Snapchat of Harrison enjoying a night out in Liverpool city centre. His drunken and drug-fuelled mind was said to have become enraged by thoughts of his rival's past wrongdoings, which had allegedly included robbing his cannabis farm and moving in on his turf in North Wales - where he supposedly ran a county lines heroin and crack cocaine operation.

In this state, he recalled a chance encounter at Goodison Park earlier that day and a lightbulb went off in his head. Ahead of Everton's 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest, Witham - who was at the game with his dad and son - said he had bumped into his friend's younger brother "Little Dave".

Little Dave informed him that his mate was hiding out in Spain as he was "wanted for Encros". He then put his sibling on the phone, who told him that he was "half skint".

Witham was informed of the existence of a loaded Skorpion submachine gun which had buried in Stadt Moers Park, a sprawling green space straddling either side of the M57 between Huyton and Whiston. And he was asked whether he could retrieve the firearm and "spin it quick" for him.

It was only under cross-examination that Witham was asked of the name of Little Dave's older brother. Straight-faced, he replied: "Big Dave."

Post-match, he said he had put the conversation with Big Dave out of his mind. Witham went to Wetherspoons with a friend and then paid a visit to a Thai massage parlour on County Road, before taking a taxi back to Pilch Lane.

Fast forward a few hours, and the gun came back into the forefront of his thoughts. Off he went to Stadt Moers Park armed with a shovel - or, as he later corrected himself, a jug which he used as part of his fishing equipment - and managed to dig up the weapon after "about five minutes" of searching.

Then, to Leinster Road. The house, he said, was in complete darkness, and he was sure there was nobody inside - although this was contradicted by the Ring doorbell of a house across the road and footage taken from the body worn cameras of the first police officers who attended the scene, which showed the property to be reasonably well lit by side lamps with the television still on in the front room.

Following the shooting, he wandered the streets "to clear his head" before concluding that he had "nowhere else to go" but back to Pilch Lane. Dropping in on Peers on the way round, return they did.

Later, racked with shame, he supposedly confessed to what he had done to an apparently baffled Zeisz and Barry - the latter of whom was previously convicted of firearms offences in connection with encrypted communications platform EncroChat, on which he discussed the trafficking of guns including a Skorpion. Of course, he had waited until the innocent Peers had left before he did so.

The jury opted for a simpler explanation. Witham had left the flat of a man who had been in dispute with Harrison and who had access to the very sort of weapon used to shoot Harrison's girlfriend dead and he left from and returned to Pilch Lane with his driver, then went into hiding with him - first in St Helens, and then in Scotland.

James Witham, Joseph Peers, Niall Barry and Sean Zeisz were all convicted 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 learn just how long they will now face behind bars on Wednesday this week, but all four will be braced for stretches north of 30 years.

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