Revealed at last: the full scale of Colin Howell’s evil
For two decades Colin Howell, a devoted Christian and pillar of society, hid a dark and disturbing secret. But yesterday the confessions of a troubled conscience came spilling out into an astonished courtroom, revealing publicly for the first time how and why this lay preacher and highly regarded dentist murdered his wife and his lover’s husband.
As Howell’s wife, a mother-of-four, lay sleeping on the sofa in their Coleraine home on a May night in 1991, he poisoned her with carbon monoxide fumes pumped into the room through a hose attached to his car.
He then drove to his lover’s home where he poisoned her husband as he slept.
After their murders it was thought that Lesley Howell (31) and father-of-two Trevor Buchanan (32) had committed suicide. But when personal tragedy struck Howell several years later, he believed that his sins had caught up with him and eventually decided to confess his hidden crimes to police.
The true facts were finally revealed at Belfast Crown Court yesterday during a pre-sentence hearing for the dentist who has already admitted to double murder.
The court heard that the bodies of Mrs Howell and Mr Buchanan were discovered on a Sunday lunchtime in May 1991, a few hours after Howell, who was 32 years old at the time, had contacted police in Coleraine asking if there had been any road accidents as his wife and car were missing.
He had also contacted a church elder at Barn Christian Fellowship, Jim Flanagan, to say he was worried about the woman he had been married to for seven years as she had disappeared.
Howell told them that his wife had been suffering from depression ever since she discovered he had been having an affair with another church member, Hazel Buchanan, now Stewart.
Just a few hours later the bodies of Mrs Howell and Mr Buchanan were found in his car parked in a garage at his late father-in-law’s home in nearby Castlerock.
It was believed they had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a suicide plot.
For almost two decades the truth of these tragic deaths remained a dark secret, until January 2009, when, after consulting with church elders and his second wife, Howell handed himself into police and made a shocking confession.
On the night of May 18, 1991, Lesley Howell lay sleeping on the sofa in the Coleraine home she shared with Howell and their four children.
As their children — aged four months, two, four and six — slept in their rooms, Howell crept into the living room with a hose that he had attached to his car with part of a baby’s feeding bottle and left it close to his wife’s face, waiting for her to die from carbon monoxide poisoning.
When Mrs Howell stirred, however, and called out the name of their eldest child Matthew, Howell covered her face with a quilt.
“She took two or three breaths then died,” Howell told police during questioning.
He also told officers that his wife had stirred enough to realise she was in peril.
Howell then dressed his dead wife in a T-shirt and leggings before placing her body in the boot of his car with a blanket and his bicycle on top.
He then checked on their children before driving off with their murdered mother.
A 10-minute drive across town in Charwood Park, RUC Constable Trevor Buchanan was asleep in bed.
He had been drugged with temazepam tablets crushed up in his food so that he would fall asleep, the court heard.
Howell reversed his car into the Buchanan garage, and as the two young Buchanan children slept close by, he brought the hose into the bedroom and placed it beside the police officer’s face.
Mr Buchanan awoke and there was a short struggle as he fought for his life. Howell said that as he held his hand over Mr Buchanan’s mouth the father-of-two looked straight at him.
“I remember him staring up when I put a quilt over him and he saw me.
“After three or four deep breaths he lost consciousness,” Howell told police.
The killer then ran outside gasping for air before returning to the house, where he dressed Mr Buchanan and carried him to the car, placing his body beside Mrs Howell’s.
Howell drove to his late father-in-law’s house at a row of cottages known as The 12 Apostles in Castlerock.
Along the way he stopped at a nature reserve where he left his bicycle on a grass verge.
He reversed the car into the garage and took Mr Buchanan’s body from the boot, placing him in the driver’s seat of the car.
He placed his wife’s body in the back of the car, surrounded her with family photos and put headphones on her and played music through a Walkman.
He then hooked an old Hoover to the car exhaust and turned on the ignition to make it look like his victims had died from the fumes in the car.
Howell then jogged to a beach nearby where he burned a bag of evidence, then got on his bike, which he had hidden, and cycled home, arriving back four hours after the murder.
Following his wife’s death Howell, who had been in financial difficulty, received more than £300,000 from her will, a life insurance policy and his dead father-in-law’s estate.
He was able to clear many mounting debts and his dentistry business began to flourish in the late 2000s.
But Howell told police that money was not a motive for his crimes. He said it was his desire to be with Hazel Buchanan that led to him commit murder. Their relationship continued for five years after the deaths of their partners.
Howell first met Buchanan at a play group at Coleraine Baptist Church which both their children attended, and they began an affair around six months before the murders.
The affair was discovered by members of their church and Lesley Howell was so upset that she took an overdose.
Howell told police that he had an “emotiona l longing” to be with Hazel Buchanan and that it was at the point of his wife’s overdose “that he realised that if
she died things might be better for him and the concept of murder was planted in his head,” the court was told.
Following her overdose Mrs Howell was still depressed and suggested to her husband that he would be happier if she and Mr Buchanan died in a car accident.
“I began to hatch a plan about how I might make this happen and cover it up as suicide. That is the source of where the idea came from,” Howell told police.
Yesterday the murderer betrayed little emotion as he sat with his head bowed in the dock.
Members of Trevor Buchanan’s family quietly wept just feet behind the man who almost got away with murder.
But, apparently, it was his conscience that got the better of him.
When his son Matthew died in an accident in Moscow a few years ago, Howell felt that his sins had caught up with him, the court was told. A short time later he then lost £353,000 in a money scam in the Philippines and the burden of his terrible secret became too much for him.
In January 2009 Howell confessed to his second wife Kyle and to church elders, who then advised him to hand himself into police.
Howell’s defence barrister said that by this stage the dentist had realised he was a “deceitful person and a fake” who felt he had a “cold heart” and wanted to “break through and confess”.
“Anyone knowing Colin Howell before or after the deaths would find it unimaginable that he could do these monstrous things,” his lawyer told the court.
Colin Howell had managed to keep his true self hidden from everyone for almost 20 years. But he could no longer hide from himself.
Cold, callous, evil and wholly without mercy: the dentist who turned ‘professional’ killer
The actions of a dentist who murdered his wife and his lover’s husband were “cold, callous, evil and wholly without mercy,” a court has been told.
Colin Howell poisoned his wife Lesley in their Coleraine home with a hose attached to his car before driving to his lover’s home where he gassed her police officer husband Trevor Buchanan in May 1991.
Mrs Howell had taken prescription drugs shortly before she was killed which had made her fall asleep and Mr Buchanan had been drugged with the prescription drug temazepam before he was gassed himself.
The bodies of Mrs Howell (31) and Mr Buchanan (32) were found in a car full of exhaust fumes in Castlerock, where Howell had left them. It was initially thought they had died in a suicide pact. 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 over his affair with the police officer’s wife.
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.
Almost 20 years after the murders, however, Howell confessed to police that he had killed them because of an “emotional longing” to be with his lover Hazel Buchanan, now Stewart.
During a pre-sentence hearing at Belfast Crown Court, prosecution lawyer Kieran Murphy told the court that Howell’s culpability was “exceptionally high” and that both his victims had been vulnerable and defenceless.
“This is an intelligent, educated, professional dentist. His actions were cold, callous, evil and wholly without mercy. The lives of his victims have been destroyed and their family and friends have been left distraught from 1991,” the lawyer said.
He added that the murders by the dentist might be described as “professional”, as they had been “meticulously and deviously planned”. Howell’s defence barrister Richard Weir QC said that the 51-year-old wanted to express “regret and deep remorse” for his crimes.
“Anyone knowing the bare facts could describe this case as monstrous, but anyone knowing Colin Howell before or after the deaths would find it unimaginable that he could do these monstrous things.
“He was an upstanding member of society.
“This is not a monster, this is a man who allowed distorted thinking, a loss of reason, and an illicit passion to completely destroy the lives of his victims, their loved ones and his own life.”
Howell, a father-of-10, pleaded guilty to the murders earlier this month.
Judge Mr Justice Hart is to decide on Friday the minimum length of time Howell will serve in jail before he is considered for release.
Trial of Howell’s former lover to start in February
The trial of Colin Howell’s former lover, who is accused of murdering her husband and Howell’s wife, is due to begin in February.
Howell is expected to give evidence against Hazel Stewart, who he had a five-year affair with after the murders.
Belfast Crown Court heard yesterday that the trial could last up to four weeks.
Stewart was not in court yesterday as the full details were publicly revealed for the first time of how Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell were murdered in May 1991.
The 47-year-old has consistently denied the murders. Her trial was due to begin last week, however, it was adjourned after it emerged that Howell had made a lengthy statement to police.
It is understood Howell's new statement to the police runs to 43 pages. His lawyer, Paul Ramsey QC, told the court last week that he would need time to examine it as well as study Howell's medical records, psychiatric reports and video evidence before the trial started.
At her last court appearance Stewart arrived supported by her two children from her marriage to Mr Buchanan, and her second husband, retired police officer David Stewart.
She has been on bail since her arrest last January after concerns were raised about her mental health if she was remanded in custody.