THE mum of murdered Ashley Dale told her daughter's killers "I will never forgive you" in a heart-breaking victim personal statement.

Environmental health worker at Knowsley Council Ashley Dale was killed when gunman James Witham, 41, forced his way into her home in Old Swan, Liverpool, in the early hours of August 21 last year and opened fire with a Skorpion submachine gun.

At Liverpool Crown Court on Wednesday, Witham was given a minimum jail term of 43 years.

Niall Barry, 26, who was described by the prosecution as the “malign presence” behind Ms Dale’s killing, was sentenced to a minimum term of 47 years.

Joseph Peers, 29, said to be a “foot soldier” who drove Witham to the scene, was sentenced to at least 41 years and Sean Zeisz, 28, who was accused of organising and encouraging the attack with Barry, was told to serve a minimum of 42 years.

A victim personal statement from Julie Dale, Ashley's mum, said: 

"03:45 on the 21st August 2022. The day I not only lost my daughter, but my best friend. The night we got that dreaded knock that no parent or family should ever have to get.

"Two police officers stood at my door, an image that will haunt me forever. I remember walking down the stairs, saying to Bobby “I’m scared”, I know what this means. “Can we come in?”, they said. Never did I think they would say these words.

"'She’s passed away,' they said.

"My life might as well have ended there too. Those three little words had just turned my lights out forever; time has since stood still.
How? Why? What’s happened? Are you sure it’s Ashley? All those questions running round my mind. Our lives had just been turned upside down in the blink of an eye. She can’t be, we only spoke a few hours ago and she was fine.

"There’s been an incident at Ashley’s home. 'She has been shot', they said. Shaking, I fell to the floor.

"The police officers left, leaving carnage behind. Myself and Bobby in total shock and disbelief. Ashley’s two younger sisters were sleeping peacefully in their beds upstairs. Then the reality set in, that I was going to have to tell them, their big sister they so adored was no longer here. Those poor innocent girls, exposed to this horrific act. How can I tell them some evil person has done this to their defenceless sister who was home alone in her place of safety. A place where they regularly spent nights staying over.

"Sleeping in the bedroom where five shots had been fired, above the bed where they had slept only one week before. The horrific thought came to my mind, that we could have been here dealing with multiple murders. My whole family could have been killed that night. No thought given to who could have been in the house, one intention only: to kill.

"Another sound no mother should hear - the screams of my baby girls when I told them something awful had happened to their big sister, and she had passed away. The inconsolable cries of a seven and 12-year-old, whose lights had also just been switched off.

"Terrified something terrible will happen to them, we all spent the next week sleeping in the same bed. The months of sleepless nights, crying out in their sleep, shouting for their sister “why, why, why” or “mummy, help me”. The ongoing months of therapy needed, to help my now nine-year-old process how or why this has happened. My 12-year-old forced to change school, as she felt unable to return to her old one. In fear of everyone knowing what had happened, not wanting to feel like she was in a ‘fish bowl’ with all eyes on her. Never to spend another night staying over at their big sister’s house being spoilt, or never getting to become aunties, a role that they both so looked forward too.

St Helens Star: Julie and Ashley DaleJulie and Ashley Dale (Image: Merseyside Police)

"That night I had to do the unthinkable. Again something no mum should ever have to do. I identified my beautiful, sweet baby girl in a mortuary, lying there lifeless behind a glass screen. Unable to touch, hold or smell her. My beautiful perfect girl was now a piece of evidence.

"The weeks went by and the unthinkable things continued. Choosing a coffin for my 28-year-old daughter, brochures left behind like I was choosing a piece of furniture, or shopping for an outfit for her to wear, whilst she lay dead alone in a funeral home. Planning her funeral, the most unnatural thing a parent should ever have to do. What should have been a private event broadcast on TV for the world to see. Our once private life, now in the public eye for all to see and comment.

"How has this happened? Two weeks before we toasted her promotion over Sunday lunch. Ashley was so excited to start her new role and we were all so so proud of her achievements, seeing her graduate was one of the proudest moments of my life. But now the plans she had for life had been robbed from her, for an utterly senseless crime.

"At 45 I’d lost my daughter, my life has changed forever. I’ve been forced to leave my job as a midwife, which I have done for the past 20 years. A career I’d worked so hard for, to better mine and Ashley’s lives, defeating the odds by going to university and getting a degree after being written off as a young mum. The sense of loss after not being unemployed since the age of 16, and the financial hardship and worry this has brought.

"I hate that I won’t see her get married, have children and deliver her babies, become Nanny “Julie” or grow old together like we always joked about. Often being mistaken for sisters as we where only 16 years apart. Trying to fill that void, as we spoke every day sharing everything. Getting into my car and calling her, even if she never answered, that I will never get used to. We don’t get to spend another Christmas with her, harassing me to put her tree up. Walking in on Christmas day looking like a supermodel, asking “when’s dinner ready?” and I look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge sweating over the stove.

"We should be celebrating her 30th birthday this year, a milestone we all so looked forward to celebrating, and have that trip to New York, like we did for her 18th.

"I don’t like leaving the house anymore, socialising with friends, having my photo taken, going the gym and doing all the things we once enjoyed doing as a family - I am a different mum, friend and partner now.

"I don’t feel safe in my own home, fearful something terrible will happen to me or my family. My once rational mind is very irrational now. I am scared when a car drives past, or an unexpected visitor knocks at the door. I can’t sleep and when I do I wake and the reality of this nightmare hits me and Ashley dies over and over again. I take medication I never imagined myself needing just to get me through the day. Months of counselling to help process this, but what can anyone say or do to make me feel better?

"This past year has been unbearable, the countless visits from police, court visits, meeting with barristers and CPS, thrust into an unknown criminal arena. I have spent the last 15 months, anticipating how or if I would cope during my daughter’s murder trial. Having to sit through endless weeks, seeing and hearing the most horrific details of how my perfect girl was left terrified asking for help, dying alone in a cold wet back yard. Hearing how you all made attempts to cover this up with lies to save yourselves, showing no remorse or compassion to me or my family. Some of you even claiming to be heartbroken and devastated, yet still you could not do the right thing. Making a mockery with the answers given as to how and why this act was carried out.

"No act or person deserves to die - but this I will never ever begin to understand or accept how this could have happened to my perfect beautiful girl, who had her whole life ahead of her.

"I hope you ALL understand, that I will never ever forgive you, for the life sentence you have gave to me and my family.

"People speak about Justice for Ashley! But in my eyes there will never be justice, the only justice is that this would never have happened. Although I can now rest knowing that you monsters are going to pay for what you have done to me and my family. And that you too have ruined your own lives and your family’s lives. I hope my words haunt you all forever and you James Witham; I hope when you go to sleep at night you too see my baby girl’s face as I do every single night.

"For My Ash, My Baby Girl, Forever 28. I love you. I Miss You. Until we meet again, Mum."

St Helens Star: Ashley with dad SteveAshley with dad Steve (Image: Merseyside Police)

A victim impact statement by Steven Dunne, Ashley's father read: "On Saturday, August 20, 2022, I went to bed as normal.  I didn’t realise that when I woke up, my life would never be the same again.  In the early hours of the morning on Sunday 21st August 2022, I was awoken by an officer from Merseyside Police who, on confirming who I was, told me my daughter, Ashley Dale, was dead.

"I can’t even begin to describe how I felt.  I’d instantly been confined to a living nightmare.  He then proceeded to tell me that Ashley had been shot.  I remember shouting ‘no’ for a long time at the top of my voice; I couldn’t believe it - history had repeated itself.

"My son, Lewis Dunne, had been shot dead seven years previous at only 16 years of age.  He was shot at close range in the back with a shotgun in a case of mistaken identity; an innocent victim caught in the middle of a gang feud.  It had been a long seven years of pulling myself out of some very dark – and at times, lonely – places, trying to put my life back together.  

"In 2022, I was expecting the arrival of my first grandson, and life seemed to be pretty positive again.  It had taken a lot to get to where I was after the murder of my son, and I’d instantly been put back to day one by the actions of another.  Ashley is the oldest of my three children, Lewis the youngest – both are now deceased.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about Ashley.

"I couldn’t be any prouder of Ashley.  She was a beautiful, intelligent, charismatic, career-driven, and family-orientated young woman.  She had been through a lot with the death of her brother, but still managed throughout that ordeal and the subsequent murder trial to concentrate on her studies, graduating with a degree in environmental health.  This is a testament to her strength, dedication, and intelligence.  She knew what she wanted in life and worked hard to achieve it; she always did.

"She loved her food and when we’d go out for family meals, it was nearly always Ashley’s choice, but we were in good hands; Ashley had good taste.  Ashley had a very active social life; she was liked by everyone, so getting a timeslot on Ashley’s busy schedule could usually be guaranteed by an offer of some nice tapas, or by cooking her a nice meal.  

"Her favourite was steak, roast potatoes, broccoli, peas, and mushrooms; that was what she would most often ask me to cook, and we would sit, talk, and catch up for hours.  I cherished every second that I spent with her.  Because of the callous and cruel actions of those responsible, I will never be able to have a family meal with Ashley again.  Despite this, as we saw on CCTV during the trial, Mr Witham considered it acceptable to take Ashley’s life away - take all that from her, me, and all of her family – before spending time dining with his own young son, just two days after murdering her.

"Ashley loved going to festivals but had started recently speaking to me about wanting to start a family.  She knew her current relationship was not one that she wanted to bring a child into, but she just couldn’t bring herself to make that permanent break.  Ashley never got the chance to be a mum, and her family have been robbed of the chance of meeting Ashley’s children, my grandchildren.  

"Ashley had recently been promoted to a higher position in work, which is characteristic of her ambition and dedication; but she never got the chance to take up that position and enjoy the rewards of her hard work.  

"The 15th November 2023 marked the eight-year anniversary of Lewis’ death; the 16th November 2023 was the seven-year anniversary of the three men responsible being found guilty of his murder.  I was sitting in the very same court with my daughters’ – Ashley and Yazmin – when those verdicts were read out. 

"Ashley sobbed uncontrollably when the foreman delivered those verdicts; she had to live through the trauma caused not only by Lewis’ murder, but by the subsequent trial which those responsible forced upon us all by failing to admit responsibility for what they had done.

"I am now sitting with my one remaining child, having been put through the trauma of yet another trial, listening to those verdicts being read out in relation to Ashley’s murder.  I have lost another child; a victim of big egos running around the city with powerful guns, involved in petty feuds and killing innocent people.

"Christmas 2022 should have been a happy time; the first Christmas I would get to share with my first grandson. Instead, it was the darkest place I have ever been to in my life.  

"I went away for a week before Christmas by myself, just to get away from everything, to try to prepare myself mentally for what I knew would be a difficult time; the first Christmas without not one, but two of my kids.  I will never get it out of my head; the fear that Ashley must have felt that night, which would undoubtedly have been exacerbated by the post-traumatic stress disorder that Ashley had suffered since the death of her brother, and the pain she must have gone through after this brutal, savage act was committed against her.  

"These thoughts affected me most around Christmas time, when I should have been spending quality time with my children.  Instead, from the 23rd to 27th December 2022 I wasn’t able to leave my house.  I sat in with the curtains and blinds shut, listening to songs Ashley enjoyed; grieving, crying, and contemplating dark thoughts of whether I can live this life anymore; whether I would have the strength to go through the coming years, knowing that I’d have to do so without two of my children. My own post-traumatic stress disorder is a debilitating, lonely, and unbearable mental illness, and it’s going to take years of hard work to try to overcome this - again.

"It was the first time in my life that I experienced what it actually felt like when someone can’t go on, but I knew I had to for my daughter, my grandson, and my family; I also knew I had to see justice done for Ashley.

St Helens Star: Ashley DaleAshley Dale (Image: Merseyside Police)

"From day one of the trial, I have not seen one single shred of remorse from any of the defendants; in fact, quite the opposite – I have felt that, throughout the trial, often during breaks in the court procedure, they have all individually behaved very disrespectfully towards myself and other members of Ashley’s family.  

"On that night in August, these individuals targeted Ashley’s car; they targeted Ashley’s house; they targeted Ashley – an innocent girl home along on a Saturday night, cuddled up to her beloved dog, Darla – a place where she should have been safe and happy.  

"This is as senseless and ruthless as it comes, and I would ask that consideration be given to imposing the maximum sentence possible on these men. Throughout the course of the trial, they have not acknowledged our pain, apologised, or shown any understanding of the impact of what they have done; they are only sorry that they have been caught. From what I’ve observed throughout the course of this trial, I don’t believe this will change any time soon, if ever.  

"By failing to admit responsibility, they have forced us to sit through the harrowing ordeal of yet another trial; they have consistently lied to try and avoid being punished for their actions.  

"These are clearly dangerous individuals, able and willing to deploy the most dangerous of automatic weapons to settle petty disputes, without any concern at all for those caught up in the crossfire.  No family should ever have to go through what we have gone through; these men cannot be allowed to do this to anyone else.
St Helens Star: Ashley and mum Julie at Fusion FestivalAshley and mum Julie at Fusion Festival (Image: Merseyside Police)

In a statement, Ashley’s grandmother said: "I am Susan Steinhilber, Ashley’s paternal Grandmother (“Gramma Sue” as Ashley named me from when she could first talk and a name that has stuck with family since that day). 

"Her amazing mother Julie, at only 16 years old, gave my son Steven, his first child at 18 years old and me my first grandchild when I was 43. Ashley’s birth was one of the happiest moments of my life. 

"I still have a picture in my mind of the first time I held her in my arms nearly 30 years ago. She was so tiny and beautiful I shed tears of happiness that first time. Ashley was also an extra blessing for me, a mother who has four sons and no daughters. I was over the moon that Julie and Steven had given me a girl as my first grandchild. 

"I spent as much time as I could with Ashley as she grew as a baby, toddler, young child and teenager. At times she was my constant, delightful companion on visits to family and friends in Liverpool, who all adored her. My visions of her as a very pretty, happy, popular, clever and funny child will never leave me. 
When Ashley Graduated from John Moores University in Environmental Health at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral I could not have been prouder. My heart was bursting with love for her and I enjoyed her happiness on that special day so much. 

"My talented granddaughter Ashley Louise Dale had the world at her feet and I cannot describe how devastated I feel at losing her, and in such a cruel way. I also feel so much pain for both Julie her mother, Steven her father plus her sisters Yasmin, Nancy and Connie for their loss. 

"As a mother, trying to support my son Steven through his heart-breaking grief of losing his eldest daughter, who he was so very close to, I cannot possible describe, as it hurts so much, particularly after losing his only son Lewis, Ashley’s 16-year-old brother, so cruelly eight years ago.
"I wake every morning hoping that this is just a bad dream, but it isn’t, I miss Ashley terribly, who is no longer with us in body but she will always be with us in spirit".