Report condemns double murder probe
Dentist Colin Howell and his ex-lover Hazel Stewart got away with murder for almost 20 years because of a deeply flawed police investigation which also failed the families of their two victims, a report has claimed.
Even though the pair were found to have lied in the days after the discovery of the bodies, detectives persisted in believing the deaths of Lesley Howell, 31, and police officer Trevor Buchanan, 32, were suicides - revealing an investigative bias which inhibited an effective and thorough inquiry lacking objectivity and focus, the report said.
Two detectives at the centre of the RUC inquiry could not even agree who was in charge when they were interviewed by officers from the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman's Office. They were called in to carry out a major review of how the initial inquiry was handled.
Howell, 52, gassed his wife and drove with her body in the boot of his car to the far side of Coleraine, Co Londonderry, where his lover stood aside as he then poisoned her husband with carbon monoxide fumes. It was May 1991, but they were only detected when the dentist confessed 18 years later after he was swindled out of his life savings.
Howell staged-managed the deaths to make it look as if their partners killed themselves. He and Stewart, 48, who later remarried, got away with their crimes because evidential opportunities were overlooked or ignored, according to the report.
Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson said: "For nearly two decades family members and close friends were left to cope with the thought that Trevor and Lesley had chosen to take their own lives. They may never have had to have lived through this pain had the police conducted a thorough, searching investigation when they had the opportunity in 1991."
The report also claimed that lines of inquiry were not fully explored; explanations for inconsistencies and discrepancies were not sought, while Howell and Stewart's accounts were accepted at face value despite both having being shown to have lied.
Howell is serving a minimum 21 years at Maghaberry Prison, near Lisburn, Co Antrim. His former lover was convicted by a jury in Coleraine last March and jailed for 18 years. She is being held at Hydebank women's jail on the outskirts of Belfast and is appealing against the guilty verdict.
Trevor Buchanan's brothers and two sisters as well as Howell's daughter Lauren Bradford were highly critical of the bungled first inquiry. A statement by the Buchanan family said: "That was totally unacceptable and it added to the immense distress already being suffered by the family."
Ms Bradford said in a statement: "To say that our lives would have been different had the truth been discovered at the time is an understatement. Sadly however, I acknowledge that even if the police had done their job in 1991, they are not the ones responsible for her death and my mum would still be gone."