Sunday school mum Hazel Stewart gets life for double murder with killer dentist
Victims' families tell of relief at getting justice after 20 years
A former Sunday school teacher was beginning a life sentence behind bars last night after being convicted of murdering her policeman husband and her lover's wife and covering the deaths up as suicide.
Hazel Stewart (48) was driven at speed from Coleraine Crown Court in Co Derry, in a blacked out custody van to Hydebank women's prison in Belfast, after a jury found her guilty of killing Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell in May 1991.
An hour earlier there were highly charged emotional scenes in the courtroom as her two children Lisa and Andrew and second husband David broke down and wept uncontrollably after the unanimous verdicts were read out.
The one-time playgroup assistant sobbed and breathed heavily in the dock as Judge Justice Anthony Hart imposed a life term. He then told prison staff: "Take her away."
It is understood her legal team are considering an appeal.
Her ex-lover Colin Howell, a once respected dentist and lay preacher, is already serving a 21-year-sentence after pleading guilty to gassing their spouses as they slept.
For almost 20 years, police believed the pair had taken their own lives in a bizarre suicide pact until Howell, apparently wracked by guilt, sensationally confessed to elders in his church two years ago.
The trial of his former mistress, who was arrested within hours of Howell's confession, lasted three and a half weeks.
Outside the court, relatives of Mr Buchanan and Mrs Howell both expressed relief that justice had been finally served.
The policeman's brother Gordon said the revelations over how he died had accentuated the family's long burden of pain.
"While there is immense satisfaction that justice for Trevor has finally been achieved, there is no sense of victory and no cause for celebration as nothing can bring Trevor and Lesley back to us and all families connected to this matter have been grievously impacted," he said.
Mrs Howell's daughter, Lauren Bradford, who is still in contact with her father, Colin Howell, paid emotional tribute to her memory.
"We mourn our mother, Lesley, and are pained at the time and the memories that we have been so denied," she said as relations, including Mrs Howell's brother, Christopher Clarke, stood beside her.
"We rejoice in the contribution our mum made to our lives in the short time we had together. We know her to have been a loving, devoted mother, and we bitterly regret the horrible way in which she was taken from us."
Mr Clarke said: "As a family we are comforted that those involved in Lesley and Trevor's murders have finally been brought to justice."
Judge Hart said he would set the minimum term Stewart must serve at a court hearing in Belfast next week.
Mr Buchanan (32) and Mrs Howell, a 31-year-old nurse and mother of four, were found dead in a car filled with carbon monoxide fumes in a garage behind a row of houses in the seaside town of Castlerock, Co Derry.
Police thought they had died in some sort of suicide pact because of the distress of their spouses' affair.
Howell and Stewart, who split up acrimoniously five years after the murders carried their dark secret for almost two decades.
The dentist first gassed his wife as she slept on the sofa of their home in Coleraine using a hosepipe connected to his car.
He then drove her body to the far side of the town, where he murdered Pc Buchanan in his house by the same method, before taking the two bodies away to stage the 'suicide'.
Howell gave evidence against his co-conspirator over four days of compelling testimony.
Fielding questions about the failure of the original police investigation, PSNI detective superintendent Raymond Murray said hindsight was always crystal clear but regretted the delay in achieving justice.
Relatives have asked Northern Ireland's Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson to examine the initial police probe.
It's not fair, it's not fair, killer's daughter cries
By Deric Henderson
Hazel Stewart struggled so hard with her breathing that one of the police officers sitting just to the right of the dock feared she was going to hyper-ventilate.
Lisa, her daughter, sobbed loudly, reached out as if to embrace her, and then cried out: "Oh no, oh no. It's not fair. No, it's not fair. It's not fair."
Andrew, her son, who held his head in his hands as if he was praying for a miracle, wailed in anguish and his stepfather David Stewart, Stewart's loyal and attentive husband, collapsed in tears. He seemed to have aged 10 years since the trial started.
Winnie, Carmen, Pauline and Jackie just stared at their sister behind the glass panel, and wept as well. It was distressing to witness such raw emotion, involving a family so utterly convinced of a woman's innocence.
Stewart sat for a moment between two women wardens as if she was not quite sure what to do next.
During the previous 14 days of this dramatic trial she was free to leave the dock as part of her bail conditions. But not this time.
Lisa appeared to mouth: "Mummy, I love you. Mummy I love you."
Hazel wept silently as well, rubbing her eyes with a handkerchief which she had clutched while Mr Justice Anthony Hart pulled up his chair to confirm the jury had reached a verdict.
The deliberations lasted just two hours and 29 minutes. Clearly they did not need much convincing about Stewart's guilt.
Just before noon they had asked for transcripts of her interviews with the investigating officers who questioned her, and which effectively damned her.
This was when she confessed that she knew her husband Trevor was to be murdered; that she cut up and burned the garden hose which Colin Howell used to gas him; how she washed the bedclothes and then got rid of the fumes which lingered after her lover had driven off with the bodies of Trevor and his wife Lesley in the boot.
Stewart stood again, still breathing deeply. Gaunt and forlorn.
There was a look of resignation, a face which maybe confirmed that this was what she had feared all along. She glanced over again at her husband and the two children and at one stage nodded as if to reassure them she would be all right and not to worry. But Lisa and Andrew just kept crying. They were inconsolable, just like David Stewart and their aunts in the row behind.
The grief on the opposite side of the court where Trevor Buchanan's family sat was just as heartfelt. There was no triumphalism or sense of victory. Just a quiet feeling of relief that it was finally over.
After the judge confirmed that she must serve a mandatory life sentence, Stewart turned to her left, her head falling to the one side. The two wardens stood to the one side, and she sided through the door and down towards a holding cell.
The judged agreed to a request by her lawyer that she could see her husband and two children before being driven off to prison.
And then it was out into the bright sunshine. First the Buchanans, and their extended family, and not far behind Trevor's great friend John Wray and his wife Sheila.
Trevor's brother Gordon, in a dark grey suit, steadied himself. "The Buchanan family will strive to get through this -- we owe that much to Trevor. It is his memory and our love for him that will sustain us and stay with us forever," he said.
A few minutes later it was the turn of Chris Clarke, Lesley Howell's only brother, to speak. But the most moving of all came when Lauren Bradford, Lesley's only daughter, had the last word.
Just four years of age when her mum died, and speaking on behalf of her two brothers, Dan and Jonny, Lauren said: "We rejoice in the contribution our mum made to our lives in the short time we had together. We know her to have been a loving and devoted mother."