Dentist dropped cable into water as wife took bath
A dentist dropped an electrical cable into the water as his wife took a bath at the height of a crisis in their marriage, a court heard today.
Lesley Howell told a friend about the incident at their home in Coleraine, Co Derry, before her husband Colin later murdered her along with the policeman husband of his then lover, jurors at Coleraine Crown Court were told.
Margaret Topping revealed how her close friend told her how Howell dropped the cable into the bath water and she suffered an electrical shock, but she said she was all right.
Mrs Topping said: "She told me almost laughing. She said it was so awful he could not have meant it. But she told me so that I would know."
Police, she said, were later told about what happened in the bathroom, as well as two other issues which Mrs Topping said had raised her suspicions after Mrs Howell was found dead in a car.
She said Mrs Howell told her that her husband had been administering drugs to her.
Mrs Howell also said he would not be getting any money she had inherited from her father's will because she feared his dental practice was in financial difficulties, the court was told.
Mrs Howell, 31, a mother of four, and Constable Trevor Buchanan, 32, the husband of Howell's then lover Hazel Stewart were found dead in a car in Castlerock, Co Derry, in May 1991.
At the time it was thought they died as a result of a suicide pact, but Howell was jailed for 21 years last December after he admitted murdering the pair by gassing them with carbon monoxide fumes.
He later claimed that Stewart, 47, of Ballystrone Road, Coleraine, helped him, but she pleaded not guilty to murder and, on the third day of her trial today, the jury of nine men and three women heard about Mrs Howell's distress over her husband's affair and how she was prepared to renew her marriage vows once she could begin to trust her cheating husband.
Mrs Topping told the court: "She was very sad, embarrassed and very hurt and kept asking, 'Why was I not number one?'. Lesley was distraught for the family and her children, because she still loved Colin."
She added: "On one occasion she said to me, 'When this is over and I can trust him again, I want to renew our vows and make a fresh start'."
Mr Justice Anthony Hart and the jury also heard claims that Howell and his lover spent a weekend together in Bangor, Co Down, after he claimed to his wife that he wanted to spend time on his own.
Mrs Topping said Mrs Howell was upset, but Howell later told his wife that he was sorry about the affair, and it would never happen again.
Once when she called at the house, she said Howell took her into the kitchen to talk about the difficulties in the marriage.
He was remorseful and apologetic, but Mrs Topping said she could not understand why. Howell said to her: "Have you never felt like that?"
Mrs Topping told Stewart's defence lawyer, Paul Ramsey QC: "I could not understand how he could rationalise his behaviour. He was a married man with young children."
After Mrs Howell's death, she said Howell came to her and her husband, Dr Alan Topping, at their home and gave her a watch his wife had owned.
She said Howell told her his wife would have wanted her to have it.
Mrs Topping said: "I cannot remember much else about the conversation. We were all in tears by the time he was leaving."
Mrs Howell, she said, was a fine friend, great fun, generous to a fault, kind, a devoted mother and a great loss.
Mrs Howell's father, Harry Clarke, a retired company director, had collapsed and died in his daughter's home just days before his daughter was found dead.
He had left money in his will and Mrs Topping said her friend told her it would be for her and the children, and not for Howell.
She said Mrs Howell told her she was unable to withdraw money from a bank's cash machine and she also believed her husband's dental practice in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, was in financial trouble.
Mrs Topping said she met Mrs Howell once at a leisure centre in Coleraine. They were attending an aerobics class.
She told the jury: "Lesley looked listless, but said she was fine. Colin had been giving her some tablets and she would be all right. He was looking after her."
Earlier Mrs Topping's husband told the court he was astonished to learn that Howell continued the affair after the deaths of his wife and Constable Buchanan, and made his feelings known in a letter he wrote to Howell.
He and his wife knew the Howells and the Buchanans through their membership of Coleraine Baptist Church. Howell, who led a church youth group, was more of an acquaintance than a friend, he said.
He told the court he became aware of the affair and that both couples were undergoing counselling. One lunchtime on his way home, he saw Howell and Stewart sitting in their cars at the entrance to a forest park outside Coleraine, and mentioned it to his wife.
He said he knew and respected Constable Buchanan, although he never had a one-to-one conversation with Stewart. He described Constable Buchanan as pleasant, good company and a great guy.
On May 15, a few days before the deaths, Constable Buchanan came to his house, Dr Topping said. He was concerned, anxious and upset about the affair, and wanted the marriage to continue. He was not depressed nor did he express any intention to harm himself, according to the witness.
In the weeks before her death, Dr Topping said he did not see Mrs Howell emotionally upset, but it was obvious she was concerned and had lost a lot of weight because of the stress she was under. She had lost her mother and father and her husband had been unfaithful at a time she was pregnant with her fourth child.
After the deaths, Dr Topping met Howell when he handed his wife Mrs Howell's watch. They were all upset, he said. They held Howell responsible for what had happened, and Howell was apologetic. Dr Topping told the court: "We thought I had misjudged him and that he was genuinely remorseful."
But later when he realised the affair was still going on, Dr Topping said he wrote to Howell expressing his feelings. Howell did not respond, but some years later he got a letter from Howell saying that he (Howell) had forgiven them.
Under cross examination, Dr Topping said Howell was a determined and ambitious man, but his friendship with him was superficial. He said he was led to believe the affair had ended during the counselling process.
Some people in the church - but not everyone - had known about the affair, Dr Topping said. Howell seemed defiant and arrogant, while Mrs Howell was quiet and generally reserved, he added.
He told the court: "Everyone did not believe it was a suicide."
Topping said he did not think Constable Buchanan was going to take his own life.
He said his wife had a lot of contact with Mrs Howell and she was in the house at the time he wrote Howell the letter, pointing out the problems which had arisen because of his behaviour.
He added that Howell did not respond, but he was aware that Howell was angry about it, even though he was generally remorseful that it was the affair which led to the deaths.
Dr Topping said he was not happy that the affair carried on after the deaths.
He discussed the deaths at his house with David Green, then a police officer, who was also a member of Coleraine Baptist Church. They were suspicious and Dr Topping said he tried to work out how they could have been killed.
He said he assumed some sort of sedation had been injected because Howell would have had access to substances. He also thought the post-mortem examination may have found puncture wounds.
Several years after he wrote to Howell, Dr Topping said he received a letter from the dentist which left him bewildered and baffled. It said "God had forgiven him and he had forgiven us", the witness said.