Hazel gets life sentence for crimes of passion
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.