THE wife of killer dentist Colin Howell lived in fear for her life from the moment he dangled an electric cable above her as she bathed, the double murder trial of his lover heard.
Six weeks after the incident – which happened during a blazing row at their home in Coleraine in April 1991 – the one-time Christian preacher gassed his wife Lesley to death before doing the same to Trevor Buchanan, the policeman husband of his mistress Hazel Stewart.
Giving evidence against Stewart for the third day, Howell told a packed Coleraine Crown Court he considered dropping the cable into the water and admitted the incident put thoughts of murder in his mind.
But he denied he had actually administered a shock – something his wife later claimed to friends – and suggested she had made this up because she was scared what he may do in the future.
“Lesley saw something in me at that moment that I could kill her, and she was right about that,” he said calmly.
Howell, 51, has already confessed to the murders that Stewart now stands accused of.
The 47-year-old mother of two from Ballystrone Road, Coleraine, denies she was part of a joint enterprise with Howell to kill their spouses.
Again she sat impassively in the dock, dressed in a plum coat, as the man who once asked for her hand in marriage delivered testimony against her on a second day of cross-examination.
Her lawyer Paul Ramsey QC characterised the incident in the bathroom as a failed murder bid and stressed it happened weeks before Howell mentioned to Stewart of his plot to kill his wife and her husband.
While Howell categorically denied he tried to kill Lesley on that occasion he conceded that from then on she knew he could do it, if he wanted.
Asked by Mr Ramsey if his wife “feared for her life” from that moment, he replied: “I believe she recognised in me that I had the capability to kill her.”
Sitting in the witness box in his customary grey suit, he said this was part of the reason why she told her friend Margaret Topping that he had given her a shock.
“She said she got a shock because if ever Lesley died, her friends would go to police with the incident,” he suggested.
“I think Lesley was building up protection for the future.”
On the seventh day of Stewart’s trial, Howell also claimed that his wife had been a bad mother who he once found drunk and unconscious, lying in vomit, when she should have been looking after their four children.
He said his marital home was always messy and that she would “fire the kids” at him when he came back from work.
The court was also read transcripts from interviews Howell gave since the murders when he described her as continually icy or angry with him, that she overspent, hit him and put on weight through depression.
The lawyer questioned the purpose of raising such negative points about his late wife, especially when he had professed a desire to bring closure and comfort to her relatives.
“All these statements about her show that even today, in 2011, show you don’t love her, that you never loved your wife and in fact you hated your wife,” he said.
Howell, who admitted he didn’t love his wife, claimed that he deliberately focused on the bad aspects in part to rationalise the killings to himself.
“I over-emphasised those so I could justify what I was doing,” he said.
Facing four and a half hours of questioning from Mr Ramsey, Howell also:
:: Revealed he had a fling with another woman - someone he had worked with at Queen’s University - behind Lesley’s back before he started seeing Stewart;
:: Admitted his claim to detectives after the murder that Lesley beat him on multiple occasions was a lie. He said she only hit him once - when she found out about the affair with Stewart;
:: Rejected the allegation that he killed his wife for the money and that he was on the verge of bankruptcy before the murders;
:: Denied drugging his wife to knock her out so he could leave the house to meet Stewart. He said Lesley took sedatives voluntarily.
Again attempting to explain his mental process before the killings, Howell said he had to hate in order to kill.
“When you kill someone you have to hate them, and I hated Trevor and Lesley, wrongly,” he said.
But later in the afternoon, following a 10-minute adjournment, Howell returned to the witness box to tell the jury he made a mistake. When he referred to his hate for Trevor, what he meant to say was that he had “embraced Hazel’s hatred of Trevor”
He admitted lying to the police in 1991. He agreed he made unflattering remarks about his wife which he deeply regretted.
He conceded they were peppered with things which were not true.
There was a feeling his wife hated him and he hated her. Communication was bad and although he remembered the sunny days as well as the bad days, there was no malice.
On the night of the so-called Eureka moment when Lesley had been with him in bed and declared she wanted to die and go to Heaven, Howell later told police in an interview that he heard a voice telling him: “I can help you.”
However he told the court today that it was not a voice. It was words which had come into his head.
At the time he believed he was being deluded by a demonic spirit telling him that he was doing something good.
Howell also spoke again about the counselling process involving Pastor John Hansford which began when the affair was found out.
He wanted the marriage to work. He said he was in a dutiful mode, not a love mode. He was trying to make something work which he felt was not working.
Pastor Hansford did not connect with him at all.
He said he was aware the Pastor had identified him as the one responsible for causing the trouble and that he (Howell) was difficult to work with. Howell said: “The exchanges never got past my head into my heart because I was deceiving him so much.”
After the four-month break in the affair when he called Hazel in March 1991, after being told by the Pastor that she had moved on in her life and wanted no part of the relationship, Howell said he was making no emotional progress. In fact it had become very intense and he wanted to find out for himself that it was true and that she would verify it.
But when he called and heard her words, that they still missed each other and that she had not moved on, it had come as a huge relief. Hazel told him: “I will love you till I’m old and grey.”
He asked Hazel probative questions at the time. The situation between him and Lesley was he believed, irreparable, but he also wanted to find out if things had moved on in the Buchanan household. The response he was getting was: “It’s a nightmare. Trevor will never get over this.”
Mr Ramsey asked him: “Was Trevor in the line of fire when you resumed contact?”
Howell replied: “I never thought of that.”
He said he did not know if Hazel had been lying to him. He believed the Pastor lied. It further distanced the relationship between him, but it was another five years before he appreciated the Pastor had not been lying.
Howell told the court the meeting he had with Lesley in her white Toyota car at the Barmouth outside Castlerock where they discussed the plan to murder lasted half an hour. He was sitting in the driver’s seat with Hazel on the passenger side. It was where he gave her the tablets.
He told Hazel to trust him, the court heard. He used anatomical language to explain the plan, but she could not understand it.
It was complex, but Howell told the court that she understood what was going to happen in terms of reaching the end point - that Trevor and Lesley would be killed. She had become confused about the details, but when he told her about A, B, C and D she clearly understood the plan in its simplest terms.
Howell told the court: “At that meeting in the car, Hazel was not confused about what the outcome would be. She understood the simplicity of it and what she should do.”