FEW visitors to Belfast’s Church Lane would notice anything of particular note to discern the thoroughfare from the many near-identical such streets interlinking across the city centre.
With December fast approaching, those who pass through the lane today are likely to do so in a state of hurried distraction as they set about finishing their Christmas shopping.
A number will pass Cole’s Alley, a dingy but otherwise outwardly unremarkable entry running off the lane with nothing to betray itself as significant in any way – just another narrow, grotty shortcut, the likes of which are common sights in towns and cities like Belfast.
As such, most will be completely unaware of the harrowing recent history of the location.
It was on the cold, hard ground of this alleyway that an Antrim man by the name of Warren McCauley lay in excruciating agony nearly 19-years-ago.
The grievously wounded 54-year-old had been the victim of a savage attack on the evening of December 2 and would remain at the scene of his assault, groaning in pain only mere metres from the twinkling Christmas lights of Belfast city centre, for the entire night.
Over the course of the evening, some passers-by – apparently perturbed by the faint moaning emanating from the alleyway - glanced into the walkway where they saw Warren, unmoving in the winter chill.
Perhaps assuming he was a passed-out drunkard rather than a man in urgent need of medical assistance, they did not intervene.
Unbeknownst to his peers prior to the horrific events of that cold December night, Warren McCauley was a homosexual and, anxious that he might be ostracised if his true sexuality were revealed, the local man led a secretive double life.
By day, he was Warren, the well-liked nurse from Castle Park who worked at Muckamore Abbey – but, after checking out from his shifts at the Abbey, Warren would become ‘Aaron’ and immerse himself in the furtive underworld of what was then a very different gay scene to that of the present day.
It was a clandestine world of surreptitious rendezvous and assumed aliases, with the pursuit of confidentiality often driving meetings to such risky environs as alleyways and public toilets.
After all, the less savoury aspects of Northern Ireland’s track record when it came to LGBT+ rights had left deep psychological scars. The province’s historic treatment of the community left many – like Warren – with an undeserved sense of shame in their sexuality.
Warren himself would have been 29 when the late DUP leader Ian Paisley, backed by his Free Presbyterian Church, initiated the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign, intent on protesting and barring the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland.
Whilst ultimately unsuccessful, highly visible advertisements were placed in newspapers claiming that any change in the law ‘can only bring God’s curse down upon our people’.
The person or people behind Warren’s ordeal that night have never been identified.
Nonetheless, it is considered almost a certainty that the attack on Warren was fuelled by homophobia.
It was not until the next morning that Warren’s battered, unconscious form was discovered by a security guard crossing through the alley en route to his work.
His extensive injuries, which included a fractured skull and a number of shattered ribs, painted a painful tableau of the extremely vicious manner by which he had been assaulted the night before.
The general consensus holds that Warren had been struck in the face with such force that he fell backwards and hit his head on a nearby kerb. Despite the fact the head wounds from such a fall would surely have incapacitated Warren, in all likelihood causing him to bleed profusely, the assailant – whoever they were - exhibited a sickeningly cruel lack of restraint or mercy.
Further analysis indicated that the attacker had either knelt on the stricken man’s chest, thus robbing him of breath, or they had jumped on him until he fell silent.
Despite the best efforts by medical staff to revive Mr McCauley, the Antrim man died two days later.
In a tragic irony, when news of Warren’s sexual orientation and secret lifestyle finally came to light, there was no scandal, no ignominy - just an outpouring of grief from a community devastated to have lost a devoted servant and friend.
Following a post-mortem examination, the police appealed for any and all witnesses with information pertaining to the murder case to come forward.
Sadly, however, justice for Warren would prove elusive, in part owing to the layers of secrecy applied by the deceased to keep his private life just that.
What is known is that Warren arrived at the city centre no later than 2.20pm. He was captured by security cameras as he entered the Body Shop at Donegal Place, where it is believed he purchased a gift for a friend.
Around an hour later, he was spotted leaving public toilets with another man in the vicinity of Arthur Lane, although they seem to have parted company by 4pm.
Mr McCauley was captured once again by CCTV near Cole’s Alley at around 4:30pm – not far from where he would be viciously beaten later that night – but, unfortunately, the trail of concrete evidence ends there.
By their own admission, the police’s attempts to track down and trace individuals amidst the throngs of people milling around the city centre that evening amounted to a ‘logistical nightmare’.
Two young males were filmed leaving the alleyway later that night, greeting two other young men, but these suspicious figures have never been identified.
Almost two decades on, the case has largely faded into obscurity, forgotten by all but close family and friends burdened with the painful memory of the circumstances that led to his passing - and to members and allies of the LGBT+ community who still vow to secure justice for Warren.
Among them is Jude Copeland of the LGBT History Project, who said Warren’s death was just one of many outstanding unsolved homophobic murders around the province.
The activist finds the lack of public awareness of Warren’s murder to be frustrating and disturbing in equal measure.
“Walking up Church Lane there’s always a moment my mind drifts to history,” said Mr Copeland, “to LGBT+ history, to my history.
“People are walking around and it’s annoying in a way that only people grieving know. Their contentment offensive to what happened here.
“The horrible tragedy, a hatred hidden by shame and a life gone. Like a mist. Disappearing like it was never there.
“Who was he important to? Did he like tea or coffee? Did anyone tell him they loved him? Does anyone have a photo of him? Does anyone remember him?
“Another year has passed, and his loved ones have no closure and that makes me hurt. Someone would’ve loved him. Someone would’ve known if he liked tea or coffee. Someone would’ve cried when he died.”
“There’s nothing for Aaron. No arrest. No flowers. No plaque. Nothing.”
Jude also voiced concern that the perpetrator or perpetrators of the vile attack remain at large, having suffered no consequence or recrimination for Warren’s murder. They are free - and they are free to kill again.
“The murderers of Aaron or Warren are still out there,” he said.
“Someone knows something. I could’ve walked past him or them today. Northern Ireland is that tiny.
“I have no photo of Aaron and it’s a bit silly of me writing this, maybe.
“It won’t change things. I didn’t know him. I have no idea about him, really.
“I just want people to remember him and take care of each other in a way we didn’t take care of Aaron.”
Despite prematurely leaving a world behind him that he believed was not prepared to accept him for who he was, Warren remains fondly remembered by those who had the pleasure of knowing him during his all too short life.
And, even in death, the Muckamore Abbey nurse continued to help others – a holder of a Donor Card, Warren’s liver, kidneys and heart were distributed to those in need of transplants, giving them a second lease of life.
“That sort of generosity was typical of the man,” remembered former Councillor Drew Ritchie, who had worked with Warren at Muckamore Abbey for many years.
“He was always thinking of other people.”