James Witham's tall tales from the witness box were so unbelievable they might have been considered almost comical 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 the jurors with larger than life stories of brothers Big Dave and Little Dave, reports the Liverpool Echo.

He recalled digging up a loaded Skorpion submachine gun in a 220-acre park just 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's outrageous lies about the minutes and hours led up to the moment he cut short the life of a young 28-year-old woman, one full of promise and hope, when he discharged a hail of bullets in her dining room as she fled for her back door in terror.

He was standing just metres in front of the grieving family of Ashley Dale in court as he tried to pull the wool over the eyes of the jury.

And he was not just lying to their faces just for the fun of it. The gunman was attempting 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 pro football players among his friends, the trained gas fitter 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 to the crime. 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 continued playing dumb and claimed a series of extraordinary events had been unfolding all around him without his knowledge.

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

Peers 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 all along that he had been at home watching the Anthony Joshua v Oleksandr Usyk fight with his dad at the time of the incident.

While he and the gunman had been seen on CCTV leaving a flat together at 267 Pilch Lane in Huyton, described as the "centre of operations" on the night of August 20 2022, 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.

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Witham, he said, had insisted on giving him a lift home, and he eventually gave in to the offer. 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 after the murder.

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 than a "recce".

From there, they had dropped by at an acquaintance on Huyton House Road in order to pick up drugs.

In the event, what should have been a short journey 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 at last 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 had apparently asked him if he wanted to head back to Pilch Lane.

And Peers, seemingly 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 which would, presumably, have been able to confirm his movements.

After a few more hours of idly passing time in the flat, he returned home once more.

The next morning, he claimed that 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, despite the fact that 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 claimed, had asked him to sort out lifts north of the border, and in turn he seized on the opportunity to visit family up there.

All the while, Peers claimed that he 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 the relationship troubles that are 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 also 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 the arresting officers, then told the police that he was being "stitched up" once taken into custody.

As recently as August of this year, his intention was to claim at trial that he had had no involvement at all 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 but, 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 actually hurt anyone.

His latest account of the night was one which completely exonerated Peers, Zeisz and fellow conspirator Niall Barry of any blame.

This time, his story was that he had just 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 his rival Harrison.

Witham maintained that he, and not Barry, had been the one who had been feuding 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 that 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 completely incensed at 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 his rival's apparent 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 had 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 informed him that he was "half skint".

Witham was informed of the existence of a loaded Skorpion submachine gun which had been buried in Stadt Moers Park, a sprawling green space straddling either side of the M57, between Huyton and Whiston.

And he says that 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 for 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 completely out of his mind. Witham went to a Wetherspoons pub with a friend and then paid a visit to a Thai massage parlour on County Road, before taking a taxi back to Pilch Lane.

A few hours later, and the gun came back into the forefront of his thoughts. 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 for it.

Then, to Leinster Road. The house, he said, was in complete darkness, when approached and so 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, and 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, after 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 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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