The devastated mum and step-dad of Ashely Dale have told of their shock, anger and crippling paranoia after their darling daughter was shot dead. Julie Dale, 43, and partner Rob Jones, 39, admit they are still struggling to accept how the ‘happy and out-going’ girl they loved was dragged into a violent feud.

The 28-year-old was working towards her qualification as a chartered environmental health officer at the time of her tragic slaying. Her loved ones told how her whole life was about having fun at music festivals, spending time with her younger sisters, working hard and planning her future.

But as the court was told, her boyfriend Lee Harrison was living an entirely different kind of life - running with an organised crime group known as the Hillsiders. Ashley was shot dead inside her own home in Old Swan as part of a plot to kill Harrison - who had made dangerous enemies even amongst former friends.

But the family of fashion loving, hard-working Ashley were stunned by Harrison's callous reaction to the death of the woman he had been with for more than five years. After 10 days of no contact, Julie took the decision to visit Lee and ask for the truth, the Liverpool Echo reports.

She said: "I made the decision that I had to see him. I had to go and see him and had to say and he sat there and denied he had any involvement. He couldn't think of any reason what it was to do with. Well he gave us three scenarios. One being a burglary gone wrong, some other ridiculous scenario that they came for somebody else who used to live in the property. None of the reasons were anything to do with him."

Julie Dale, left, with her daughter Ashley Dale
Julie Dale, left, with her daughter Ashley Dale

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Rob, who came into Ashley's life when she was 12, told the ECHO: "His last words, to me, were this is nothing to do with him. He gave us three ridiculous scenarios of what it might have been, when all the time he's known exactly what it's over. He's refused to help. The lies, he might as well be in the dock with the six of them because he's no different from them.

"The most horrific thing in the world ever you could do to another person, and to not just hold your hands up and say you know what, enough is enough here I will tell the truth. And they carried on and carried on the selfish nature of all of them. And Lee's the same."

Those underworld disputes, "petty and pathetic" in the words of Chief Constable Serena Kennedy, resulted in "footsoldier" James Witham barging through Ashley's front door at 12.30am on August 21 last year. Witham, 41, chased Ashley down while spraying bullets from a Skorpion sub-machine gun.

The hit was arranged by drug dealing boss Niall Barry, 26, and his friend Sean Zeisz, 28, who lurked in a squalid flat in Pilch Lane, Huyton, directing the horrific act of violence from afar. While Julie and Rob had concerns about Harrison's lifestyle and behaviour, they were totally unaware of the mortal danger she was in.

The family of Ashley Dale arrive at Liverpool Crown Court including mum Julie Dale, middle, with step-dad Rob Jones
The family of Ashley Dale arrive at Liverpool Crown Court including mum Julie Dale, middle, with step-dad Rob Jones

Julie told the ECHO: "The last year really has been unbearable, it really has. Not just having to deal with the fact that Ashley is not here any more, you know she has passed away. But the whole details, and the whole how it happened and everything else being thrust into this public arena.

"I described it like I feel I'm having an out of body experience, living someone else's life, and I don't know if it will ever feel real. Obviously I know Ashley isn't coming back again, I know I am never going to see her again, but in terms of how it's happened I don't think I am ever going to be able to accept it and it will never make any sense to me."

For Julie, from the moment the sickening news brought her world crashing down, she had no doubt why death had been brought to Ashley's door. Julie said: "Straight away, when the police officers knocked at our house at quarter to three in the morning on the 21st August, we said straight away 'where's her boyfriend? It's got to be something to do with him. It's not just a random attack, someone doesn't just break into someone's home, and kill them. It's got to be to do with him'."

Both Julie and Rob said the deep concerns about threats to Harrison, which Ashley had shared with friends in text and voice messages revealed during the trial, were a shock and have been painful to listen to. Julie said: "I knew he didn't have a conventional job shall we say. You know he didn't have a nine to five job. I'll be honest, I didn't know what he was up to, I still don't know the whole truth of it, what he was doing. I was never happy about it.

From left; Ashley Dale's killers James Witham, Sean Zeisz, Niall Barry and Joseph Peers
From left; Ashley Dale's killers James Witham, Sean Zeisz, Niall Barry and Joseph Peers

"Ashley was very career driven, you know Ashley was working up to become a chartered environmental health officer, she was working to do her portfolio, she got up every morning and she went to work every single day the whole time her and Lee were together. I used to tell her on a regular basis I wasn't happy about her being with someone like that, by someone like that I mean someone who didn't have the same hopes and dreams as what she did. But unfortunately she just fell in love with the wrong person and he didn't love her."

Rob said: "What we have heard in the trial has shocked us. The things, the world that Lee has been into or on the periphery of or associated with, however you want to phrase it. Ashley thought she could improve Lee. She thought she could turn him round, get him a job, get him a driving licence, could push his life in the right direction, not that we knew how wrong a direction it was going in."

One distressing feature of the case was the fact Ashley knew the men involved in her murder. Pictures presented in court showed her happily posing with Barry, Zeisz and Witham on nights out and at music festivals. Witnesses who knew of the background of the murder also declined to give evidence.

When asked if there was a sense of betrayal, Julie said: " Absolutely, there really is. I didn't know any of the defendants personally. But even down to some of Ashley's friends as well. We've heard details that people chose not to give witness statements and chose not to speak up. That's difficult.

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"I understand people are scared because one of your friends has been killed in the most horrific way. But to sit and hear those details and know these people have not spoke up for her, yeah it's difficult, it really is." For Rob and Julie, life after Ashley has been a daily struggle, steeped in paranoia and bewilderment - particularly in the time before they knew who was responsible for her death.

Rob said: "You're standing there in your local shop thinking, 'who is this person in front of me, who is this person behind me'. Anyone who wears a black coat and a black trackie, thinking they could be part of them. I might dress like that myself on a Saturday as well, which makes you become paranoid about the way you look, the way you dress, who you're mixing with.

"But our life has never been anything to do with this, it's a different world to us. And it was a different world to Ashley. This was not her world." Julie added: "And now we're left picking up the pieces so to speak now. I don't sleep. I don't sleep at all. Robbie hasn't slept well at all since it's happened. An unexpected car might drive past the house, or there's an unexpected knock at the door, someone you might not be expecting.

"The anxiety; it's just through the roof, it really is. And now our faces - we have sat in trial, we have sat with these defendants, we've sat with the families - they all know what we look like. You might seem like you're being so far-fetched but this couldn't get any more far-fetched than it's got to. We're constantly moving house, there's just so many things now that we're now having to deal with."

Ashley Dale with her dad, Steve Dunne
Ashley Dale with her dad, Steve Dunne

While Julie and Rob say they were not "naive" to the presence of an underworld in Merseyside, the sordid, dangerous world exposed during the trial has staggered them. Rob said: "You hear about things happening And you think that's other people's lives. It sounds a bit cliche to say 'it's never going to happen to you' but we would be in that bracket saying it's never going to happen to us. What got read out in court; it's all shocking.

"At the same time the trial went on that long, you become numb to some things in there. It was lie after lie, it was more criminality after criminality, and just felt like when are these guys ever going to realise, going to stop and think, life is precious. Their mentality is they're all invincible, they can fly around doing whatever they want.

"And in this situation, Ash was a clear innocent victim, alone in her own home on a Saturday night. It was so sort of premeditated the nature of what happened to her. That's shocking." There are, of course, happy memories of the close bond Julie and Ashley had. Julie gave birth to Ashley very young, at the age of 16, and says the pair "grew up together". Ashley's dad, Steve Dunne, also attended almost every day of the trial.

She said:" We spoke every day, daily, on the phone. Most mornings one of us would ring each other and check in for the day, and it would continue throughout the day with a WhatsApp message or a call, or she would share fashion tips or things for your house on Instagram or whatever it might have been so we had constant dialogue every day until bed time.

"I know it sounds mad, but that's how it was pretty much every day really. Or she would pop over and come for tea, or for a coffee, whatever it may be. She liked using our garden for the summer because she never really had a garden. I'd come and she'd be sunbathing, 'I'm just using your garden'."

One thing is clear, nothing will be the same after the loss of Ashley. Justice is vital, but for Julie, it will not bring back the thing she wants most of all, to talk to her daughter. She said: "It's very important but again people talk about justice. And I get justice is making these people pay for what they have done. However in my eyes I don't feel like there'll ever be justice for me, or for Ashley. Because justice is that this would never have happened."

Witham, Barry, Zeisz and getaway driver Joseph Peers, 29, were each convicted of Ashley's murder, conspiracy to murder Lee Harrison and conspiracy to possess a firearm and ammunition with intent to endanger life. Ian Fitzgibbon, 28, was cleared of all charges and Kallum Radford, 26, was acquitted of one count of assisting an offender.

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