A restlessness that seemed to permeate the courtroom vanished immediately when Crown prosecutor Ciaran Murphy QC got to his feet to finally reveal the case against alleged double killer Hazel Stewart.
The 47-year-old mother-of-two sat almost motionless in the dock with her head lowered as Mr Murphy told the jurors that throughout the trial it will become clear that Stewart and her former lover Colin Howell (51) jointly planned the murders of their partners by poisoning them with carbon monoxide “for their own selfish ends” and later covered up their crimes.
Some of the jurors appeared uncomfortable as they looked through one of the first exhibits to be presented to the court — a book of photographs which showed Stewart’s first husband Trevor Buchanan dead in the driver’s seat of a blue Renault 21 estate car.
Describing the photograph, Mr Murphy said 32-year-old Mr Buchanan was slumped in the seat, his legs buckled beneath him, with one hand on the steering wheel.
Another photograph showed the body of Howell’s wife Lesley (31) lying in the boot of the car surrounded by family photographs and with a Walkman radio cassette player beside her.
The court was told that at the time of the murders Howell and his wife Lesley were living in a house at Knocklayde Park in Coleraine with their four children, who were aged four months, two, four and six.
The couple met when he was at Queen’s University in Belfast studying dentistry and Mrs Howell was studying to be a nurse. They married on July 16, 1983.
Howell became unhappy in his marriage and by 1990 he was looking for an affair.
Stewart and Mr Buchanan were living in a house with their two children at Charnwood Park in the town. They had married on July 11, 1981 and initially lived in Omagh. Mr Buchanan, an RUC constable, was stationed at Castlederg.
The pair had met in 1980 in Omagh and dated for around a year before getting married. In March 1986 he got a transfer to Coleraine.
Mr Murphy told the court that in her statement to police after her husband’s body was discovered, Stewart said that after the move to Coleraine “the family position had changed and she felt apart from them”, and that she and Trevor would often fight.
She described herself as “quiet by nature” and said she found it difficult to mix socially. She said she developed a different outlook in life in 1989 when she got a job as as a teaching |assistant in Mountsandel playschool and realised “there was more to life than just being at home”.
She said Trevor noticed the change in her attitude and “was not in favour of it”. She said this led to arguments and a “lack of closeness”.
She met Howell at the school where she worked, as he would often leave his child there.
The pair got chatting and then began to arrange to meet with their children at swimming sessions in Ballymoney.
Howell then began to bring his children to Stewart’s house, where they were able to have a full sexual relationship which lasted for a number of months from June 1990.
Stewart became pregnant during their affair and Howell travelled with her to London where she had an abortion in August that year.
Stewart said that Howell was different to her husband, describing the dentist as “friendly, outgoing and easy to talk to”.
The relationship was discovered in September 1990 by a |fellow member of Coleraine Baptist Church, Dr Alan |Topping, who spotted the pair in a car at Castle Road Forest Park in Coleraine.
Stewart told police that when Mr Buchanan became aware of the relationship he found it difficult to cope and did not respond favourably to counselling, which had been organised by former pastor John Hansford.
Lesley Howell was also deeply distressed by news of the |affair. Howell said she “flipped”, attacked him and then took an overdose.
Just eight months later, at 1.20pm on May 19, 1991, the bodies of Mrs Howell and Mr Buchanan were discovered in Mrs Howell’s Renault 21 car by David Green, an off-duty police officer and James Flanagan, an elder in Coleraine Baptist Church.
Earlier that morning, at 8.30am, Howell had contacted Mr Flanagan to say that his wife and their car was missing.
At 8.45am Mr Flanagan went to see Howell who read him part of a note which he said had been written by Lesley |addressed to him.
The note read: “Dear Colin, I’m just trying to go to sleep now. How long for I don’t know. Thank you for everything over the last few days and the good times in our marriage. I don’t know what to say to you. I have found that life goes on after so many weeks of pain. I am nothing in comparison to what you lost, the one you loved a while back. If I wake up let this be our secret. All my love, Lesley.”
Mr Flanagan noticed an injury on Howell's face. Howell said that Mr Buchanan had come to his house the previous evening and there had been an argument and he was struck.
Mr Flanagan then went to Hazel Stewart’s house to ask if
her husband was there. She told him that she had heard Lesley Howell’s voice in her home in the early hours of the morning talking with her husband.
At 12.45pm that day, Howell phoned Mr Flanagan and asked him to carry out a check at Cliff Terrace in Castlerock, where Mrs Howell’s father had lived. Mr Flanagan brought David Green with him and after searching the interior of the house they went to a garage at the rear of the property.
It was there that they discovered the bodies.
Post-mortem examinations were carried out and it was found that Mr Buchanan and Mrs Howell had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. An inquest was held into their deaths and it was concluded that they had taken their own lives.
On May 23, 1991, Stewart made a statement to police which was used as evidence |during the inquest.
In her statement, she said that on the day of the murder she suggested that she and her husband go to Lisburn. She said that on the way they argued about Howell. Stewart claimed that later that evening, at 8.15pm, she went for a cycle. She said when she came back she made supper, then watched television with her husband. She said that at 10.15pm she went to bed but that Mr Buchanan stayed up.
She said she fell asleep but woke some time later, maybe between 3am and 4am, when she heard her husband’s and Mrs Howell’s voices, but did not |recall what they were saying.
Stewart claimed that she fell asleep again and when she woke at 5am her husband was not in bed. Stewart said she looked outside and saw his car parked at the front of the house, even though he normally parked it in the garage.
She was told at lunchtime that his body had been found.
Stewart told the police at the time that her affair with Howell had stopped but that Mr Buchanan had believed it was still going on.
“This was part of the false story concocted between herself and Colin Howell,” Mr Murphy told the jury.
He added: “The statements are the product of a joint plan to cover up the killings, to |escape detection and stop any investigation. They painted a picture of two people disturbed by what they found out, and as a result decided to take their own lives.”
The police investigation was closed, with both Stewart and Howell’s children believing that their parent’s had taken their own lives.
But almost two decades later, at 8.40am on January 29, 2009, Howell’s second wife Kyle called a group of fellow church members requesting they come to her home immediately.
When they arrived Howell broke down and told the group that the deaths of Mrs Howell and Mr Buchanan were not |suicide and that he was |responsible.
The police were then |contacted and they arrived a short time later at Howell’s home on Glebe Road in |Castlerock and arrested him.
In his confession to police, Howell said he first came up with the idea to murder his wife and Mr Buchanan on May 14, 1991.
He said at that time his wife was distressed over his affair and her father’s death. Howell said he rang Stewart asking her to meet him the following day, and it was then that he outlined his plot “from start to finish”.
“He said she said he was crazy and they wouldn't get away with it,” said Mr Murphy.
“She never objected to it.”
Howell then claimed to have given Stewart tablets his late father-in-law had been taking in order to drug her husband on the day he planned to kill him.
When the day arrived Howell said he initially was unable to contact Stewart, as she had gone out for the day, but she called back later when he said he |reminded her about the tablets. He claimed he told her he |would ring her house phone, hanging up immediately so the receiver just made a single |clicking noise, when he had killed Lesley.
That night, as his wife lay sleeping on the sofa of their home, Howell laid a hose pipe through the house, placed it |beside her mouth and lay a duvet over her head.
She stirred as the poison filled her lungs so Howell held the duvet around her head while she died.
He said she muttered their son Matthew's name as she desperately gasped for breath. The couple’s four children were in bed at the time.
Howell said he then placed his wife’s body in the boot of his car and rang Stewart.
“When she heard the click she would know Lesley was dead,” Mr Murphy explained to the jury.
Howell said she phoned him straight back.
“He said he knew then he had clearance to go over to the house,” said Mr Murphy.
The dentist said he had briefed Stewart on what she needed to do ahead of his |arrival.
Her car needed to be out of the garage so he could drive in, to make sure her husband was asleep and had taken the drugs, that the fireplace was clear so she could burn the hosepipe |and that clothes were laid out |so he could dress her dead husband.
When he arrived, he told |police Stewart was panicking but that he didn't pay her much attention.
Mr Buchanan was in the bedroom asleep when Howell ran the hose pipe through the house and laid it on his pillow.
He awoke and Howell ran in to tackle him.
They both slid off the bed during a struggle and Howell finally held him down and forced the pipe into the corner of his mouth.
When he was dead, the dentist said he dressed the policeman in the jeans, shirt, jumper, socks and shoes that Stewart had laid out in the spare room.
He then placed the bodies in the boot of the car with a bicycle over them, drove them to Castlerock and staged the suicide scene. When he finally returned home he said he phoned Stewart to make sure she had cleaned the house, burnt the pipe, and to tell her he had suffered a bruise to his head during the struggle.
Mr Murphy said Howell told Stewart: “You have to say when you are interviewed by police that Trevor came to my house and we had a struggle and Lesley came to your house in the early hours of the morning and you heard them talking.”
The QC added: “Both of them ultimately gave that same version of events to police.”
Howell said he resumed a sexual relationship with Stewart weeks after the funerals of their spouses and continued it for five years, at first secretly, but by 1994 he said he was taking his children round to her house and that they had gone on holidays to Newcastle, Co Down, and the Lake District in England.
He said he asked her to marry him in 1995 and that he had gone to view two dentistry practices in Scotland in the hope of starting a new life with Stewart and their families.
“She didn't want that,” said Mr Murphy.
Their relationship ended |in 1996 when Stewart began seeing another man, Trevor |McAuley. She later married her second husband, retired police officer David Stewart. On the same day that Howell confessed to the police, officers went to Stewart’s home.
Mr Murphy said that when she was cautioned she replied: “What? What has been said?”
Stewart was then taken to Coleraine police station where she was interviewed over a number of days and gave different versions of what happened.
Initially she said she did not know what Howell had planned, that she was “weak and vulnerable” and was scared for her life, as he controlling. She said she felt at times that she was in love with Howell. She said that Howell would never have left Lesley and that one day he said there was a way for them to be together, and that was to kill her husband and his wife.
She allegedly told investigating officers: “Months or weeks before in the car he said something about how this is the only way. I didn't want to discuss it, he had it fixed in his own mind.
“When he came round with the car maybe I should have done something, I was scared for the children.”
The court heard that on the night of the murder she stood in the bedroom and at one stage looked out and saw her husband lying in the corridor in his boxer shorts. She said she did not want to see him, and she was scared the children would come out of their room.
She said her mistake was getting involved with Howell.
After Howell arrived and |ran the hose pipe through |the house, she said she heard |a struggle in her husband's bedroom.
She said: “I didn't want to hear it, I put my hands over my ears, I didn't want to hear it, I was so scared.”
Stewart told police that after Howell had removed her |husband’s body she opened the windows to let the fumes out, vacuumed the carpet and washed and changed the bedsheets.
Asked by police if she had |got rid of evidence, she said: “I suppose you could put it like that, I never thought of it like that, I just needed to get the room tidied up.”
She then got sticks and coal and lit a fire to burn the hose pipe, just as Howell had instructed her to do.
In her later interviews she admitted that she had encouraged her husband to take a temazepam tablet that Howell had given her, telling her to crunch it up in his food.
She said Howell wanted her to drug her husband. “He had to have something in him to relax a bit. If Trevor hadn’t taken it he (Howell) couldn’t have gone on with it.”
Stewart said she had lied to protect herself, as well as her two children.
When the police put it to her that she knew Trevor was going to be killed that night, she replied: “Yes.”
She also allegedly told police: “I wasn’t in good form that day. I knew something would happen. I wanted the whole thing stopped and I didn’t stop it.”
Mr Murphy said that during police interview detectives put it to her that money was never a motivation, but that the motive was for her and Howell “to be alone and to be together”, to which she allegedly replied: “Yes.”
Mr Murphy told the court that there was no doubt Stewart had engaged in a joint enterprise to kill Mrs Howell and Mr Buchanan.
“The purpose was to rid them of their partners so they could be together,” he said.
“Hazel Stewart knew what was going to happen.”
Mr Murphy said Stewart knew Mrs Howell was about to be killed and did nothing to stop it, and that she facilitated the murder of her own husband.
“She had to ensure that |he was sedated and asleep before Howell arrived,” he said.
“She did that to facilitate the plan.”
He added: “She led him in and she saw what he was doing, she prepared clothes to be put on her dead husband.
“She stood feet away knowing her husband was struggling for his last breaths. She showed total and utter callous disregard for her husband and endorsed and encouraged exactly what Colin Howell was doing.”