The coroner who ruled that the deaths of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan were suicide tells Crime Correspondent Deborah McAleese how he was left stunned by the news that police are now re-investigating the case as a suspected double murder
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Robin Hastings said there was absolutely no suspicion at the time that the deaths were anything other than suicide.
He said he was at a rugby match recently with one of the officers involved in the original case when he heard police had launched a murder inquiry and that they were both shocked by the news.
At the May 1992 inquest Mr Hastings ruled that Mrs Howell and Mr Buchanan — an RUC officer — had committed suicide. He said that, according to medical evidence, they had died from carbon monoxide poisoning from car exhaust fumes.
Mr Hasting’s findings were made after hearing evidence from a pathologist, RUC officers and the spouses of the deceased — Colin Howell and Lesley Stewart — who have since been charged with double murder.
The inquest was told that Mrs Howell and Mr Buchanan had been very distressed after discovering that their partners had been having an affair.
Howell had also claimed during the inquest that his wife had previously attempted suicide by taking an overdose of tablets.
“As a coroner you rely on medical evidence, police witnesses, civilian witnesses. You rely on the pathologist’s report — they go into everything. It was all perfectly straightforward at the time. There was no suspicion at the time that there was anything else,” Mr Hastings told the Belfast Telegraph.
Evidence had been given during the inquest that traces of a sleeping drug had been found in Mr Buchanan’s blood and drugs at therapeutic level detected in Lesley Howell’s blood.
“There was some evidence that they had taken something and I remember asking someone about it and was told it was very light traces, that it was not of any consequence,” said Mr Hastings.
“I heard that police were treating the deaths as murder while I was at a rugby match with one of the officers involved at the time and I was very surprised.
“At the time I was going on the evidence presented. I knew the police involved in the inquiries and none of us were expecting anything like this at all.
“I really don’t think more could have been done at the time. It was all very straightforward then”.
Mr Hastings said he had known Constable Buchanan and described him as an “honourable man”.
“I would have known Mr Buchanan. He was very pleasant. I am still shocked that this is now a murder inquiry.
“I really wasn’t expecting that,” he added.
The bodies of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan were found in a blue Renault estate car belonging to the Howell family on May 19, 1991.
The car was parked in a garage at the rear of a house at Cliff Terrace in Castlerock where 30-year-old Mrs Howell’s late father had lived.
Mother-of-four Lesley Howell’s body was found in the rear of the car. Constable Buchanan lay slumped in the driver's seat with the window down.
A police officer friend of the Buchanans told the inquest how he found the bodies after being alerted that Trevor and Lesley were missing from their homes. He said there was a strong smell of exhaust fumes in the garage. A hosepipe led from the exhaust under the tailgate to beside Mrs Howell’s head.
Colin Howell told the inquest that the hosepipe found at the scene had come from a vacuum cleaner which was in their car to be taken for repair.