Ian Fitzgibbon punched the air as he was cleared of the murder of Ashley Dale.
The 28-year-old council worker was shot dead in her own home on Leinster Road in Old Swan in the early hours of August 21 last year. James Witham, Joseph Peers, Niall Barry and Sean Zeisz have been on trial at Liverpool Crown Court accused of her murder, and were unanimously convicted by a jury this afternoon, Monday.
They were also found guilty of conspiracy to murder Ms Dale's boyfriend Lee Harrison and conspiracy to possess a prohibited weapon, namely a Skorpion submachine gun, and ammunition with intent to endanger life. Ian Fitzgibbon was cleared of these three charges while a sixth defendant, Kallum Radford, was acquitted of assisting an offender.
READ MORE: Live updates from Ashley Dale murder trial
Peers reacted to the verdicts by shaking his head appeared to mouth "f***ing joke". Radford showed no reaction.
Zeisz also showed no emotion. Barry held his head down with his head pressed against a glass pane at the front of the dock as he was found guilty.
Fitzgibbon meanwhile punched the air as he was acquitted, then beat his chest with his right fist clenched. Witham initially showed no reaction but then appeared to be close to tears in the dock.
The verdicts were delivered after nine hours and 22 minutes of deliberations by a jury of five men and seven women. Mr Justice Goose, who presided over the trial, will pass sentence on Wednesday.
Paul Greaney KC told jurors during the prosecution's opening last month that gunman Witham and "driver" Peers, were "dispatched" to Leinster Road to assassinate Harrison and "leave no witnesses". They had allegedly received their orders from Barry, Zeisz and Fitzgibbon – who were said to have been "directing operations" from a flat on Pilch Lane in Huyton.
The court heard that, at around 11.40pm on August 20 2022, two men approached Ashley’s white Volkswagen T-Roc car – which was parked outside the house – and slashed its tyres, causing the alarm to sound, in an effort to "lure" the occupants out. But it is thought Ashley believed the alarm had been set off by heavy rain and, as a result, did not leave her home, where she was spending the evening alone with her dachshund Darla.
Mr Greaney said: "The men who had damaged the car were not deterred. Fifty minutes later, at about 12.30am, they returned.
"This time, they were not to be diverted from their intention to kill. One of the men approached the front door of 40 Leinster Road and he kicked it in.
"Ashley plainly became aware of what was happening. She screamed and fled towards the back door of the house, but the man entered the house and he pursued her.
"He was armed with a machine gun and opened fire. Ashley was struck by a bullet – it passed through her abdomen, causing catastrophic damage."
Mr Greaney said that "certain events at Glastonbury Festival" in June 2022 had "played an important part" in the alleged motive behind the attack, adding: "Ashley Dale and Lee Harrison, her boyfriend, attended the festival, as did at least four of the defendants – Sean Zeisz, Niall Barry, Ian Fitzgibbon and James Witham. A group of other young men from Liverpool were also present, one of whom was a person called Jordan Thompson – who was known as Dusty.
"Lee Harrison seems to have had an association with the group of which Dusty was part. Whilst at the festival, Sean Zeisz was assaulted, and his attackers included Jordan Thompson.
"This attack appears to have occurred because Sean Zeisz was, as it was later expressed, arguing with everyone for Niall Barry – who was known as Branch. To compound the loss of face for Sean Zeisz, in the aftermath of the assault his girlfriend – a woman called Olivia, known as Liv, McDowell – stayed with the group of which Jordan Thompson, Lee Harrison and Ashley Dale were part.
"It is clear that Sean Zeisz felt deeply humiliated from what had happened at Glastonbury."
The court also heard that Barry then sided with Zeisz, with this "fresh" dispute having compounded a "separate and longstanding antagonism towards Lee Harrison", who was not present at the time of the attack. The suicide of Rikki Warnick, who had apparently been "bullied" by Thompson before his death, was also said to have increased tensions between the two factions.
Mr Greaney said: "Niall Barry used these new events at Glastonbury to reignite that old feud. And, as tensions simmered in Liverpool, Niall Barry made a series of threats directed towards Lee Harrison."
Witham, of Ashbury Road in Huyton, admitted having barged down the door of Ashley's home and sprayed the property with bullets using a Skorpion submachine gun. But the 41-year-old claimed he did not see or hear Ashley inside and was instead attempting to "send a message" to Harrison, with whom he had supposedly been in dispute with, over drug dealing in North Wales.
He denied having plotted with others to arrange the shooting beforehand, stating that he had decided to discharge the gun at the address, which he said he believed was empty, on the spur of the moment while drunk and high on cocaine. Witham maintained that he had found the weapon buried in Stadt Moers Park, having learned of its existence after speaking to a pair of brothers called "Big Dave and Little Dave" while at the Everton v Nottingham Forest match on the afternoon of August 20.
Twenty-nine-year-old Peers, of Woodlands Road in Roby, meanwhile told the court he had been at home watching a fight between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk on the television with his dad at the time of the shooting. Barry, aged 26 and of Moscow Drive in Tuebrook, 28-year-old Zeisz, of Longreach Road in Huyton, and 28-year-old Fitzgibbon, of Heigham Gardens in St Helens, also said they had been watching the boxing in the Pilch Lane flat and had no knowledge of any plan to attack Leinster Road.
Radford, of Trentham Road in Kirkby, was accused of making arrangements for the Hyundai i30N Performance used in the shooting to be stored at an address in St Helens in the aftermath of the incident. But the 26-year-old claimed to be unaware that the car had been used in connection with any crime.
Detective Chief Inspector Cath Cummings, who led Merseyside Police's investigation into the shooting, said following the verdict: "This trial has heard of the despicable acts of cowards who have ruined more lives than they could ever imagine. They took 28-year-old Ashley – an ambitious, bubbly, charismatic young woman – away from her family, her friends and her colleagues.
"They created fear within local communities as they shot an innocent young woman in the safest place she should ever have been, her home. We have heard how, at 12.30am on Sunday, August 21 2022, James Witham forced his way into her home and indiscriminately fired a number of shots towards Ashley before going upstairs and discharging a further five rounds from a Skorpion machine pistol.
"No one will ever be able to imagine the fear Ashley must have felt in her final moments. I'm humbled that I have had the responsibility as a senior investigating officer to lead this investigation, to provide Ashley's family with some answers to so many of their questions.
"I gave Julie, Steven and Robert (Ashley's mum, dad and step-dad) my word that, whilst I could never take away their pain, I, my team and Merseyside Police would work tirelessly to get them answers and take those responsible off the streets. I made that pledge to members of the community too.
"I want to thank Ashley's family for their dignity, restraint and patience displayed throughout this trial. I can't begin to imagine their heartache and the pain that they've gone through.
"I thank them for their trust in me and their trust in Merseyside Police and the investigation team behind me. The prosecution team as a whole – the investigation team, the Crown Prosecution Service and counsel – have dedicated all of their time and energy to ensure that justice has been done fairly and justly.
"This investigation is a prime example that we will listen to our communities, we will take seriously the information that people have to offer us, we will analyse it, review it and take positive action. I hope that today gives reassurance to the public that we listen and we support those who are prepared to stand tall and tell us what happened, what they saw and what they heard.
"Let this be a message to those intent on causing misery through the use of firearms and serious organised crime. That their criminal enterprise here in Merseyside will not be tolerated and we will find them."
Witham had previously pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter, while Barry and Zeisz are awaiting sentence concerning convictions relating to encrypted communications platform EncroChat. Olivia Cristinacce-Travis, senior crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service, added: "The evidence in this case has shown that this was a cold, calculated and callous attack on a young woman’s home.
"The home is meant to be an environment that would be a safe place for anybody, and that is what Ashley thought that evening. Clearly, the acts of those responsible in meticulously planning this attack on her home led to another outcome."