For Niall Barry, any hope of escaping the consequences of the murder of Ashley Dale began to dissipate when detectives downloaded the contents of her phone.

The tall and stocky drug dealer knew he was in a serious situation, going as far as recruiting the services of an underworld fixer, known only as ‘Gus’ to smuggle him out of the country in the back of a lorry. That plan failed when he was arrested at gunpoint in Formby Hall Hotel, with his passport and £10,000 in drugs cash.

As he sat in police custody, the 26-year-old may have drawn some comfort from the fact he had an alibi for the shooting itself - he was holed up in a smoky flat in Pilch Lane, Huyton, a location covered by CCTV corroborating his story.

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

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

As the jury concluded following an seven week trial at Liverpool Crown Court, his minion, 41-year-old James Witham, barged through the front door of Ashley’s home in Leinster Road, Old Swan, at around 12.30am on Sunday, August 21. Witham, face covered by a balaclava, sprayed the property with bullets from a Skorpion sub-machine gun, one of which caught Ashley in her midriff just as she was about to escape through the back door - seconds from safety.

Even with a trail of calls and texts between Barry and Witham that night, and the fact that Witham and getaway driver Joseph Peers, 29, were in the flat with Barry for hours both before and after the shooting, it was not enough to finger Barry as the driving force behind the attempted hit. The police needed more.

That is exactly what the investigation team, led by Detective Chief Inspector Cath Cummings, got from the hundreds of messages, voice notes and pictures on the device recovered inches from where Ashley was found dying in her back yard.

In the sinister narrative that emerged, one man’s name came up again and again as someone Ashley felt “terrible anxiety” about due to his “heavy beef” with her boyfriend, 25-year-old Lee Harrison, aka ‘Saz’.

Niall Barry was convicted of the murder of Ashley Dale
Niall Barry was convicted of the murder of Ashley Dale

In Ashley’s words Barry, also known by his street name ‘Branch’, was “on some pure rampage”. In one voice-note, to her friend Charl, Ashley said: “There’s heavy beef with that Branch, been heavy beef with that Branch for years. Like, if my fella see’s him, it’s going off. like it’s gonna be bad like, where it’s like to the point where probably one of them’s gonna end up in a bad way.

“So it’s like, it’s heavy like, it’s scary to be honest. So like my head’s just gone. I just can’t believe that Branch has popped out of the woodwork.”

There was more than general fear of what could happen between the two men. Ashley spoke of two specific threats - and why they hated each other.

The first occurred in Glastonbury festival that June. According to Ashley, Branch pulled out a “big knife” and said “tell Saz I’m gonna stab him up”. The second was in phone calls between Barry and Harrison on July 26, when, according to Ashley, Barry was threatening to “come down” to the house. Crucially, the references to those calls were backed up by call records for phones attributed to Barry and Harrison.

In court, Barry had no choice but to deal head on with both claims. He accepted he had made a “general threat” at Glastonbury to “stab up” a group of men from the same criminal gang as Harrison, but denied he had meant him specifically or mentioned his name.

He also admitted speaking to Harrison on July 26, claiming he had been told Harrison had tried to pass the blame onto him after being accused of stealing money or drugs from James Witham. He told the jury he had threatened to “come down to the estate and punch your head in” if he did not stop mentioning Barry’s name. However he claimed that by "estate", he was referring to Hillside in Huyton, where Harrison originally comes from, and never made any threat to come to Leinster Road.

According to Ashley’s voice notes, and what emerged at trial including from Barry himself, Barry and Harrison fell out in around 2018 or 2019. A quantity of cocaine and cannabis, worth somewhere in the region of £40,000, was stolen from a stash house under Barry's control.

Ashley Dale murder suspect Niall Barry denies organising the shooting
Ashley Dale murder suspect Niall Barry denies organising the shooting

The Hillsiders - an organised crime group based on the Hillside estate, with whom Harrison had been affiliated - were apparently to blame. However instead of siding with Barry, once his "best mate", Harrison apparently continued to associate with the men "from round where his mum lives" who ripped him off.

One of the questions for the jury, was whether this feud was something Barry was willing to put to one side, “turn the other cheek” to as lead prosecutor, Paul Greaney, KC, put it, and simply cut ties. Or did his ego, and the risk of being perceived as “weak” in the dangerous underworld he existed in, mean it was a more serious problem?

They were helped by Barry’s past. In an undoubted boon to the prosecution, Barry was unmasked as one of the many criminals caught out by the breach of EncroChat in 2020. Using the handle ‘BetterTrunk’, Barry was exposed chatting to others about the sale of kilo quantities of drugs and, and most tellingly fully automatic firearms including a Skorpion - the same gun used to kill Ashley.

Julie Dale, left, with her daughter Ashley Dale. Ashley was shot dead on August 21, 2022
Julie Dale, left, with her daughter Ashley Dale. Ashley was shot dead on August 21, 2022

In one message, he told another EncroChat user: “Get that 38 off Gibbs. We float with that. My other things are quite far, dodgy on the road, that’s local. Just get that Skorp. And we go.”

Barry claimed he was “young and stupid” and had been simply “trying to act hard”. While on remand awaiting trial for Ashley's murder, Barry was convicted of conspiracy to sell a prohibited weapon, a fact the jury were told..

In cross-examination, Mr Greaney suggested: “There seem to be two possibilities. First a man left your company to attack the home of a man you had fallen out with with a type of firearm you had access to. All of that is coincidental.

“The second possibility is you commissioned the attack in your role as the leader of an organised crime group which had access to firearms and drugs.”

Barry replied: "No that’s not the truth. I’m not the leader of no organised crime group. I had no authority to send anyone to anyone’s house and I didn’t."

But the dynamic between Witham and Barry was exposed on a police body camera, from officers who fortunately stopped Barry and Witham in Somerset as they were on their way to the Glastonbury festival site. A knife was found in a bag containing Barry's passport and his clothes. Without a moment's hesitation, Witham chimed in: "That's my bag".

As Mr Greaney put it in cross examination, " he was taking the blame because he was your joey.”

Barry countered: “No that’s not right at all. Mr Witham’s a 40 year old man. He’s not my joey. He doesn’t work for me or anything like that. There’s no way I could make him take the blame for a knife that wasn't his. No way.”

It was perhaps one throwaway line in a message on Ashley’s phone which helped seal Barry’s fate. Complaining about a friend talking to Barry at the wake of a mutual friend called Rikki Warnick, who killed himself on July 21, Ashley said: “Yeah cos Sav and that done me head in. Fully legged us and went and stood with Branch and all that. Like not being funny but you’re meant to be my mate. My fella hasn’t come because he’s saying he’s gonna shoot him.”

All roads pointed the jury to a single conclusion. In the words of Mr Greaney: "He is the malign presence behind what happened at 40 Leinster Road that night.” Barry was convicted of Ashley’s murder, conspiracy to murder Lee Harrison and conspiracy to possess a firearm and ammunition with intent to endanger life.

His friend, Sean Zeisz, 28, who was also in the flat, was convicted of the same charges as were Witham and Peers. Ian Fitzgibbon, 28, was acquitted or all four counts. A sixth man, 26-year-old Kallum Radford, was found not guilty of assisting an offender by knowingly hiding the car used in the murder for Peers or Zeisz.

The four guilty men will be sentenced tomorrow (Wednesday) by trial judge Mr Justice Goose.

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