A dentist murdered his wife and his lover's policeman husband by poisoning them with car exhaust fumes as they slept in their homes, a court heard on Monday
By Deric Henderson,David Young and Michael McHugh, Press Association
Colin Howell then drove off with their bodies in the boot of his car and fooled investigating police by stage-managing a scene to make it look as if they had died in a suicide pact, Belfast Crown Court was told.
He kept the secret for almost 20 years before eventually confessing to detectives after losing more than 350,000 in a bid to find missing gold in the Philippines - a project which turned out to be a
scam. Howell, 51, first killed his wife Lesley and later Constable Trevor Buchanan at their homes in Coleraine, in May 1991 when he attached part of a baby's feeding bottle to a garden hose to poison
them with carbon monoxide fumes as they slept.
He ran the hose from a car and killed them after they both fought for their lives. Mrs Howell cried out for her first-bornsonMatthew
when she woke up and realised her life was in peril,
the court heard. Later Howell was involved in a desperate struggle when he gassed Constable Buchanan at his house.
At one stage Howell feared he himself would be overcome by the toxic fumes. Details of the double murder were revealed for the first time at a pre-sentence hearing for Howell, who has pleaded guilty to the murders. The court heard the two bodies were discovered in Mrs Howell's car in a garage behind a house once owned by her father, who had collapsed and died just days earlier.
Crown lawyer Kieran Murphy told Mr Justice Anthony Hart: "This was a meticulous and devious plan and pre-meditated in a manner that might be
described as professional." Howell, of Glebe Road, Castlerock, has already been sentenced to life imprisonment after admitting the two murders. Hewill be told on Friday the minimum term he will have to serve.
His former lover, mother-of-two Hazel Stewart, who remarried after Constable Buchanan's death, has pleaded not guilty and her trial, which is due to begin in early February, is expected to last up to a
The court also heard that two years after he remarried, Howell told his second wife Kyle, an American divorcee with two children, about the
killings, but his admission was never disclosed until January last year,when he confessed all to his church elders who then called in the police.
Howell and Constable Buchanan's wife had resumed their affair when the dentist decided to carry out the murders late on the Saturday night of
May 18 and the early hours of May 19. The first was in his own house where his wife, who had been drinking and taking prescription tablets
because of her distress over the affair, was sleeping in her night-dress on a sofa.
Howell attached the garden hose to the exhaust of the Renault Savanna by using a baby's feeding bottle which he cut in half. He ran it through a utility room and kitchen to where his wife was lying,adistance of about 25 paces.
He then switched on the engine and waited at the living door as the fumes began to seep out just inches from Mrs Howell's face. But she woke up and cried out for her son Matthew, then aged six,whowas sleeping in another room with his sister Lauren, four, and two brothers,Daniel, two, and Johnny, just nine months.
Howell then pulledaduvet over her head, squeezed hard, and pushed the hose into her face with his right hand and held it there until she died.
At one stage he checked her chest to see if she was still breathing.
As relatives of Constable Buchanan looked from the public gallery, Mr Murphy said: "She called out Matthew, his son's name, and he said that memory haunts him."
The court heard that he then dressed his wife in a T-shirt and leggings and carried her to the boot of the car. He placed a blanket over her head and put a bicycle on top of the body. He drove the Renault from his home at Knocklayde Park to the far side of Coleraine where Constable
Buchanan lived with Hazel and their two young children, Andrew and Lisa, at Charnwood Park, just off the Mountsandel Road.
Trevor was asleep in the double bed. Howell drove into the garage and did the same thing with the garden hose - he pulled it through the house and placed it close to the sleeping officer.
But Trevor also woke up to find Howell, who had been standing outside the bedroom door. He also fought for his life, the court heard. They struggled and fell to the floor to face each other.
Howell bumped his head, but managed to trap Trevor's arms inside a quilt and pulled it over his head. He shoved the hose towards his face, and listened as the policeman took his final breaths.
In a statement to the police Howell said: "I pulled the quilt over his head first and with my right hand put the hose to his mouth. I remember him sitting up and I pulled the quilt over him. He saw me."
Howell became dizzy at this point because of the fumes. He ranout of the house to the garden, which backed on to a forest, to catch his breath. He then returned.
Trevor, a scenes-of-crime officer with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was also dressed. His body was carried outside and placed in the boot beside Lesley's. Mr Justice Hart was told that Howell then drove towards
Castlerock, along the Cranagh Road. But before reaching the seaside village he turned right along the Barmouth Road, close to a railway crossing and nature reserve, where he left his bicycle on a grass verge.
He turned, went back and headed for Castlerock to a row of houses at Cliff Terrace which were also known as the Twelve Apostles. One of them, number six, had been owned by Lesley's father,Harry Clarke,who had collapsed and died at his daughter's home 12 days previously.
It was here, in a small garage at the back of the house, that Howell stage managed the suicides. He reversed in and pulled on a pair of plastic surgical gloves.
He heaved Trevor's body fromthe boot and placed it in the driver's seat and left the door open. Lesley was in the boot. He positioned some family photographs beside her body, and pushed the play button on her personal stereo system after placing the headset over her ears to make it seem she was listening to music.
Howell then connected a length of vacuum hose which had been lying in the car to the exhaust and put the other end into the boot where his dead wife was lying. Before leaving he switched on the ignition.
Mr Murphy told the court that Howell ran along Castlerock beach, burnt evidence he had been carrying with him, retrieved his bike and cycled home.
He checked to see his children were still asleep. It had all happened
inside the space of four hours. The court then heard of an elaborate plan by Howell to cover up the murders and pretend to his church elders,
and the police that his wife had left their home in the middle of the night before returning with Trevor.
There had been an altercation between him and the police officer and then Trevor and Lesley drove off. The following morning he called the police to see if his wife had been in an accident as she had been drinking.
He then alerted one of his elders, Jim Flanagan, and asked him to go to the Apostles to see if his wife was there. He didn't find them at first, but when he went back a second time, this time with an off duty police officer,
David Green, who was also a church member, the bodies were found in the car. Mr Murphy then read extracts from an extensive series of interviews Howell gave to the police after his arrest.
They disclosed how he had concocted a story to give the impression that his wife and Mr Buchanan had committed suicide because they had struggled to cope after discovering he and Hazel had been having an affair.
The then pastor of Coleraine Baptist Church, John Hansford, had been involved in a counselling process to help both couples re-build their marriages.
At the time, Howell claimed Mr Buchanan had come to his own house on the night of the murders and the pair had an altercation, which resulted in the policeman striking him before leaving.
He said he then went to bed and left his wife lying on the sofa, but awoke the next morning to find her gone, leaving an emotional note in the house. He had discovered it in a drawer after his wife overdosed on tablets when she found out about his affair with Hazel Buchanan.
"It was an extra idea that if he put this (the note) in, it would add to the credibility that this was a suicide." said Mr Murphy.
Howell then rang a member of his church and the authorities to report her missing, but Murphy said the entire story was a complete fabrication.
"That account was of course a total and utter lie from
Mr Howell," he said. "That statement was a planned cover upof the murders to escape detection and stop the investigation." Howell had in fact been planning the murders for some time, and in the week before the crimes had manufactured the adapted hose in his garage using the baby's feeding bottle.
The court heard he wanted to start a new life with Hazel and for that he needed his wife, and her husband, dead. While Howell claimed money had not been the motive for the killings, the court heardhe had benefited by several hundred thousand pounds from the deaths of his wife and father, a retired company director who had moved to Castlerock from Hillsborough, Co Down.
Mr Murphy said Howell was able to pay off debts, including his mortgage and develop his dental practice in Ballymoney. He received 212,446 which had been left in his wife's will. He also benefited from the estate of her father worth 27,000.
Insurance against Lesley's death paid out 120,000 and he received 54,635 from an endowment policy.
His dental business began to grow and flourish, having previously been in deficit at the time of the deaths. In 2008 he sold a home for 131,000.
But then the court heard Howell lost 353,000 on a Philippines scam involving a scheme to recover gold hidden in chambers by the Japanese.
Howell's lawyer, Richard Weir QC, said it was transparently a fraud and questioned whether Howell knew it was doomed to failure.
He added: "Was that a symptom of Colin Howell seeking out his own destruction, his downfall?" Mr Murphy urged the judge to impose a severe
sentence, arguing there were a series of aggravating factors.
Among them was the suffering the victims' families had endured wrongly believing that their lovedones had killed themselves.
One of the features was the bewilderment of Trevor Buchanan's family of how he could have committed suicide and what that did to the family.
Mr Murphy said Howell was an educated and intelligent man who had deployed his considerable ability in the execution of the killings.
He added: "The actions of the dentist were calculated, callous, manipulative, evil and wholly without mercy for two defenceless victims, one of whom was his wife and the other the loving husband of his co-accused."
Mr Weir said he had been instructed by Howell to express his profound regret and deep remorse.
"He accepts entirely how bad these matters are, how monstrous they are.
"There is a man there, not a monster, a man who allowed distorted thinking, a loss of reason, an illicit passion to completely destroy the lives of his victims and to destroy his own life," he said.
He told the court the delay in the guilty plea was caused by advisors probing Howell's mental state.
"Anyone knowing Colin Howell before and indeed after these deeds would find it unimaginable that he could do these monstrous things because he was an upstanding, an effective and a worthy member of this society, not a monster," he said.
Mr Weir recalled how the aftermath of the affair with Stewart left Howell "isolated and traduced" within his church and his own community. The unhappiness of the affair remained.
He added: "So distorted was his thinking that he thought that he was doing something that was good and that would relieve the victims from their pain and sorrow following this affair.
That was grossly distorted thinking, this thinking that led to the appalling and monstrous crime."
He said Howell had departed from all that was his true self - a decent, upstanding, hardworking member of society. The affair provided a toxin that enabled the murder plan. The lawyer said his client had always accepted his role in planning and conducting the crimes and had never attempted to minimise it.
He said: "The product of that crime is not happiness for the perpetrators but instead unhappiness, discord and even tragedy."
He said Howell had discussed with his wife Kyle revealing the crimes in the late 1990s but that was not done.
"The reason for this is a demonstration this man`s conscience had not been left in peace," MrWeir said. He said his client did not regret being incarcerated after a litany of tragedy had befallen him. His son Matthew died, aged 22, in an accident in Russia in 2007.
Mr Weir added: "Colin Howell regarded this as yet another awful outcome for the sins that he had committed and conceived.
"It gave him particular insight into the effect that his actions must have had on the family of Trevor Buchanan."
He said Howell knew he was a fraud of the worst type who destroyed people`s lives and those of their families. The bereaved families could now enjoy some form of vindication from knowing their loved ones had not
Mr Weir said: "At least that part of their reputation is restored and at least the family now know the truth of these matters.
"These crimes would not have seen the light of day and been properly prosecuted by this criminal justice system had it not been for the fact that his conscience and his conscience alone troubled him over the years."