On the night Ashley Dale was murdered, the rain was coming down hard in Old Swan, to the east of Liverpool. Ashley was at home, watching television in her pyjamas, her miniature dachshund, Darla, sitting in her lap. At 11.40pm, she texted her mother. “The rain just set my car alarm off x.” Darla was fidgety. She seemed bothered by something outside the house. Ashley cuddled her and took a selfie, which she texted to a friend. “I’ve never known anything like it.” she wrote. “She is scared of something outside.”
That photograph was the last Ashley would ever take; the texts documented the final moments of her life. At 12.30am, her door was kicked in. A masked gunman chased her through the house, shooting 10 rounds with a Skorpion machine pistol. One of the rounds hit her in the abdomen. Ashley made it out to the yard while the gunman went upstairs and fired a further five rounds into an empty room. By the time police arrived, alerted by a neighbour who had heard screams and could see Ashley collapsed on the ground, it was too late.
Ashley could never have known that those texts, along with weeks of voice notes – a panicked stream of consciousness that reduced many in a Merseyside courtroom to tears – would later be used to bring the men who murdered her to justice. The contents of Ashley’s phone led to what the prosecutor described as an “unprecedented” trial in which she, the victim, effectively became the “narrator”, telling “her own story in court”.
The messages and audio files retrieved from Ashley’s phone paint a picture of a young woman who was living with fear. “My nerves are gone,” she texted a friend just three weeks before her murder. “When I am out in the car with Lee just feeling like I’m looking over me shoulder all the time.”
Olivia Cristinacce-Travis, prosecuting, said the contents of her phone served to “foretell her own death”. “These voice notes were harrowing to listen to and chilling when played to the jury.”
The messages are a kind of diary of the final few weeks of Ashley’s life, documenting the chaos that swirled around her as tensions between her partner and men from a rival organised crime gang began to rise. For months, Ashley confided in friends in snatched moments via voice notes and texts, sharing her fear that something bad was going to happen. For lawyers trying to convict her killers, they provided “a running record of concerns”.
The voice notes begin shortly after the 28-year-old got back from Glastonbury Festival in June 2022. The weekend had been fraught with drama as a fight had broken out between a group of men in Ashley’s wider circle. It was ostensibly about a girl, Olivia McDowell, (known as Liv), who Ashley is heard comforting in voice notes in the days after the festival. In fact, that fight was just the reigniting of a feud that had been burning for far longer.
A long-standing tension between Ashley’s boyfriend Lee Harrison and a gangster called Niall Barry – who on Wednesday November 22 was jailed for her murder for more than 40 years along with James Witham, Joseph Peers and Sean Zeisz – had been stoked at the festival.
It began three years earlier, when Harrison sided with an organised crime group known as the Hillsiders after they allegedly stole drugs from Barry. At the festival, one of Barry’s associates, Zeisz, was attacked by the Hillsiders. Zeisz was angry afterwards that his girlfriend, McDowell, had left him and spent the rest of the festival with the rival group, including Ashley and Harrison.
Ashley sent a voice note to her friend Liv when they arrived back at home:
The fight seems to have reminded Barry, known as Branch, of his vendetta against Harrison, known as Saz. In voice notes, Ashley shared with Liv the violent threat Barry made at the festival. “He’s saying ‘where’s Saz, I’m gonna stab him up’ to your Ian,” Ashley said. A message to another friend, Sophie, told how Barry had “pulled a big knife out” and said he wanted to stab Harrison.
It was strange, she told Sophie. Barry hadn’t been in the picture for some time. “He just disappeared for years and now someone’s obv rattled his cage. But it’s scary coz he’s on some pure rampage.”
Though she must by then have begun to fear for herself, Ashley continued to comfort Olivia. “Just try and get through these next few days,” she said in a voice note. “He’ll come round soon and like if he doesn’t then f*** him.”
Over the course of the next few weeks, Ashley’s messages relay the worry that had begun to take hold. Though the dark underbelly of Liverpool organised crime was, in the words of her mother, Julie, “not her world”, she was perceptive. She could see what was happening, could sense that things were spinning out of control.
She told Liv:
By August, a new ingredient had been added to the mix. A friend, Rikki Warnick, took his own life on July 21. His death – and the events planned to commemorate him – became what the prosecutor described as a “pressure point” in Liverpool. Ashley told friends she was concerned about the idea of either she or Harrison attending the wake if Barry was going to be there too.
She sent a voice note to one friend, Charlotte:
In another voice note, to her friend Sophie, she admitted how worn down she was by weeks of anxiety. “It’s just proper draining,” she said. “I just feel like I’m just constantly like worrying and like something’s gonna happen.”
She said of Harrison:
“Look,” she said in another note to Sophie. “I can just see… see how it’s gonna pan out now, it’s gonna be a disaster. [...] It’s just all stress, like it’s just all proper doing me head in. I’ve just got a bad, bad feeling about everything to be honest. I just don’t even know what to do, so me head’s just been chokka, like, I dunno, I’m just f------ [sighs].”
She told her she had finally asked Harrison to be honest with her about this world he was embedded in. “We’ve had to speak about it all this week properly. I’ve had to say to him like, you need to just be honest about everything. You need to tell me everything. because I don’t normally wanna know, but like, you’ve half gotta prepare me for the worst. I need to know what could happen.”
On the day of the wake, at a bar called Ten Streets, Ashley spoke to a friend, Lois, who told her Barry was there. “Urggggggh f--- off mate. Lee was like I might just come down. But I don’t want him to.” She eventually made the call to go inside. She texted Lois: “Will you come outside and get me please girl? Like in one min. Lee saying don’t go in on my own just in case. I’m pulling up outside now.”
Inside, Ashley texted Harrison. “Just got in here now all rats just sat together in the smoking bit. I don’t think you should come I’d rather not be here if you’re going to a pub I’ll come and meet u not staying here. Feel dead bad that you’re not here and I am.”
Days later, she WhatsApped her friend Lydia, saying she was glad Harrison hadn’t come. “Lee and that didn’t go Ten Streets. They went for scran in Sefton and that, done their own thing. It was moody cos of Branch. Something was gonna happen so they done the right thing like not going, but just a joke you can’t go own mate’s funeral.”
The prosecutor told the court it was “plain” that Rikki had been “much liked” in the community. “His death, and the events that took place to commemorate his life sadly operated to increase the temperature in an already heated situation within Liverpool.”
“This wasn’t Ashley’s world,” said her stepfather, Rob Jones. She was a beautiful young woman who was close to her family and worked hard. She had studied environmental health at Liverpool John Moores University, graduating in 2017 and worked for Knowsley Council. Her family believes that five years before she was murdered by men who knew her, she had fallen in love with the wrong man.
Witnesses who knew of the background to Ashley’s murder declined to give evidence at the trial, something her mother and stepfather have said is a source of great pain for them. “I understand people are scared because one of your friends has been killed in the most horrific way,” said Mrs Dale. “But to sit and hear those details and know these people have not spoke up for her – yeah, it’s difficult, it really is.”
It is perhaps of some small comfort that her daughter was, quite extraordinarily, able to be her own witness. That thanks to her voice, her vulnerability, the honesty with which she shared her deepest fears with her friends, the men who took her life will now be placed firmly behind bars.
*Messages were edited for concision