Detective defends Howell inquiry
A police officer closely involved in the original probe into the deaths of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell almost two decades ago today defended the investigation which resulted at the time in a verdict of suicide.
The detective — who asked not to be named but who played a key role in the probe — claimed there was always a level of doubt over the circumstances surrounding the deaths but that the only verdict that could be reached at the time was suicide, particularly because the victims had been in distressed states of mind due to difficulties in their private lives.
“I have always kept an open mind about what happened but we had to accept the Coroner’s findings.
“You have to remember, the two victims were in torment over what was going on in their marriages,” he said.
Mr Buchanan, an RUC officer, and Mrs Howell were found dead in a car in the garage of a house in Castlerock in 1991.
It is understood the house was Mrs Howell’s father’s home and that the pair were found dead in her father’s Renault 21 estate car. Her father had passed away just one week previously.
At the time an inquest into the deaths heard they had both been distressed after discovering their spouses — murder accused dentist Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart — had been having an affair.
The Coroner found that, according to medical evidence, Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan died from carbon monoxide poisoning from car exhaust fumes. A verdict of suicide was recorded.
Earlier this month, however, after police received fresh information, Howell and Stewart were charged with murder.
Howell has also been charged with a number of sex offences and administering overpowering drugs with intent to commit indecent assault.
“Although I had always kept an open mind about the case I was still very shocked by the latest developments,” the officer said.
The Belfast Telegraph has also learned that police are planning to freeze financial assets belonging to Stewart.
The 45-year-old is understood to have received a lump sum from the RUC and monthly pension payments following Mr Buchanan’s death.
If she is found guilty of any involvement in his death she would have to pay the money back.
Yesterday the Telegraph revealed that officers are preparing to freeze Howell’s bank accounts as the investigation into the renowned cosmetic dentist deepens.
A source close to the case said while such a move is usually carried out in fraud, drugs or money laundering cases, it is not an unusual move in these circumstances.
The PSNI said it could not comment on the development as it would be “inappropriate to go into detail about an ongoing investigation”.
Howell appeared in court earlier this week to face four charges of indecent assault on a female and four charges of administering an overpowering drug with intent to commit indecent assault over a 10-and-a-half-year period.
The offences allegedly took place from March 1998 to December 2008 in the County Court Division of Antrim.
The previous week both Howell and Stewart appeared in court charged with murdering their former spouses.
Howell was remanded in custody and Stewart was released on bail totalling £15,000 after concern was raised that she may self-harm if remanded in the women’s prison at Hydebank.
Former patients of Howell have said they were shocked that such a “pillar of society” was facing double murder and sex charges.
One said: “I got quite a bit of work done by him a couple of years ago. I always found him very cold. There was never a lot of chit-chat with him.
“The work he did for me cost £4,700, so he didn't come cheaply.
“He always came across as being very aloof.
“He is a very gifted dentist and while I never thought of him as being a particularly warm person, I never would have thought he would find himself accused of these offences.”