Dentist and lover got away with murder for 20 years due to police failings
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 claimed today.
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 Constable 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 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 - she later remarried - got away with their crimes because evidential opportunities were overlooked or ignored, according to the report.
Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson said: "There was a very early assumption of suicide. I have seen little evidence that this assumption was subject of any test or challenge by the investigators.
"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.
:: Howell and Stewart's accounts were accepted at face value despite both having being shown to have lied.
The report disclosed that a trace of human blood was found on a sweatshirt Constable Buchanan was wearing but no action was taken to discover how it came to be there.
And photographs of injuries to his mouth and nose and what appeared to be blood coming from the back of his head were not recorded in a report by the pathologist John Press who carried out the post-mortem examinations.
He could offer no explanation as to why the injuries were not documented, the report said.
The two police officers centrally involved, Inspector Jack Hutchinson and Superintendent Hamilton Houston were not named in the report of the examination of the 1991 investigation when Howell and Stewart fooled them into believing the deaths were suicide. They were identified as Police Officer 1 and 2.
Mr Hutchinson said: "They accepted the accounts provided by Howell and Buchanan despite the fact that from quite early on in the investigation, both were shown to be lying. These failures are all the more difficult to accept or understand given the fact that the investigation was conducted by two experienced senior detectives. I can only conclude that police failed the victim's families."