| 2.1°C Belfast

Tributes to UVF double killer William Hunter


Flowers and other tributes to Billy Hunter line the street outside the Asda on the Shore Road

Flowers and other tributes to Billy Hunter line the street outside the Asda on the Shore Road

Flowers and other tributes to Billy Hunter line the street outside the Asda on the Shore Road

More than 100 bouquets of flowers, tributes and passionate messages of grief have begun to wilt outside William Hunter’s workplace.

But people still gathered on Tuesday to read the faded handwritten notes dedicated to ‘a true gentleman’, ‘a true friend’ and ‘a diamond in the rough’ that were pinned among the flags outside the gates of Asda supermarket on Belfast’s Shore Road.

Newspapers have been inundated with sympathy notices from people declaring how much they loved and will miss the 55-year-old father-of-one.

The only reference to his past among these tributes is a message stating ‘Here lies a soldier’. Another reads: ‘Let he without sin cast the first stone.’

From the vast tributes, it would appear that there were two William Hunters.

There was the UVF double killer who in May 1975 gunned down Catholic brothers John (21) and Thomas (19) McErlane in cold blood.

And then there was the supermarket checkout worker and Linfield supporter whose horrific death evoked such a great outpouring of grief.

In 1979 Hunter, then a notorious armed robber, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering the McErlanes.

A judge described the murders as a “dastardly attack”.

The young brothers were shot twice in the back of the head while playing cards with Protestant work colleagues at a flat in Mount Vernon.

Hunter and another gunman burst into the flat and ordered everyone to lie on the floor.

The brothers were shot as they lay on the ground. The murders were claimed by the Protestant Action Force, a cover name for the UVF.

During the court hearing it emerged that he and others had spent months trying to lure the victims to Mount Vernon.

The Newtownabbey loyalist served 14 years for the murders.

After his release, for almost two decades he kept his head below the radar. But in 2010 he was sacked from Asda for making sectarian comments to a Catholic delivery man at the store’s Shore Road branch.

The delivery man said that Hunter had told him to “play the f****** Sash” instead of Frank Sinatra in his van.

Hunter was given his job back a few days later after he expressed regret for any offence caused — and after angry loyalists picketed the food store for four days demanding that the till operator be reinstated.

At the time the delivery driver said he felt frightened after discovering the person he made a complaint against was a UVF double killer.

He also vowed never to shop again in an Asda store after Hunter was reinstated.

“When I learnt about his past I thought: ‘Well he hasn’t changed’. I’m not saying people with pasts shouldn’t have a job, but I don’t think this man has changed,” he said. However, Hunter’s mourners do not dwell on his murderous past.

Loyalists have described him as “witty”, “popular” and “jovial”. Tributes to him outside Asda call him ‘one in a million’.

Another states: ‘It’s so hard to take in that you’re gone. You were loved by everybody.’

Two neighbours wrote: ‘In memory of a great guy who was so kindhearted an (sic) would of (sic) done favours for anyone.’

Nobody seems to know what it was that drove Hunter to douse himself in petrol and set his body alight on Ballywalter Road in Co Down on Friday.

But a source in north Belfast said: “He was feeling depressed and took himself off to a friend’s caravan. Apparently, he was talking about this.”

Another loyalist said: “I think he was having problems, but I don't know what the problems were.”

He suggested: “There's more to this than meets the eye.”

It was suggested that he may have been haunted by his murderous past.

Said one loyalist: “Whether it was the people he killed, whether it was life in general, or whether it was something else, it’s not clear.”

Another said: “I don’t know what demons he was hiding. Some people have said he felt guilty about his past, but I just don’t know.”

The family of his two murder victims are unlikely to express much sympathy.

Their brother Gerard contacted Walmart, the US company that owns Asda, and asked it to remove the tributes.

He said Hunter’s supporters were making a shrine out of Asda with his death.

Asda said it had no plans to remove the tributes.

“We respect there are strong feelings from various groups within the local community on this matter. The tributes being left at our Shore Road store have been led by the local community and we are letting the community manage these,” a spokesperson said.

Belfast Telegraph