‘I killed two innocent people, I’m so sorry’ – dentist
A dentist who murdered his wife and ex lover's husband then covered it up as suicide apologised for killing two innocent and honourable people as verdicts delivered at the original inquest were overturned today.
Colin Howell, 52, who concealed the murders of Lesley Howell and policeman Trevor Buchanan for almost 20 years before confessing to elders in his church, told a coroner in Belfast that he wished he could turn back time.
The former lay preacher and Mr Buchanan's widow Hazel Stewart, 48, are now serving life terms for the double murder in Coleraine in 1991.
At the start of a new inquest into the deaths, a letter Howell wrote from his prison cell in Maghaberry high security jail was read to the court.
"I wish I could turn back time but I cannot, and I am helpless to offer up any good thing except for my acts of remorse and the hope of healing for my victims who have been so deeply impacted and wounded by me," he stated.
"I am so sorry."
The bodies of Mrs Howell, 31, and Mr Buchanan, 32, were found in a car in a fume-filled garage in the seaside town of Castlerock. The dentist had staged the scene after poisoning the pair with gas piped from his car exhaust as they slept in their own homes in nearby Coleraine.
Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey re-registered the deaths as carbon monoxide poisoning by homicide after a short hearing attended by relatives of both victims.
During the inquest a police officer confirmed that close friends of the deceased had expressed concerns that the deaths were suspicious to police at the time of the original investigation.
Mr Buchanan and Mrs Stewart's two children Andrew and Lisa were both in court sitting alongside the murderess's second husband, retired senior police officer David Stewart.
On the other side of the public gallery were Lesley and Colin Howell's daughter Lauren Bradford and brothers and sisters of Mr Buchanan.
They sat in silence as Howell's letter was read out.
"My journey of truth and remorse continues today by the confessions I have made, resulting in a life sentence for the murders of these innocent and honorable people," the dentist wrote.
Last year Howell pleaded guilty to the crimes and was handed a minimum 21-year term.
Stewart, 48, contested the charges during a high-profile murder trial earlier this year but a jury ultimately found her guilty on both counts. She is serving an 18-year minimum life term in Hydebank women's prison in south Belfast.
Both killers lied to the original inquest in May 1992, suggesting that their partners had taken their own lives because they could not cope with their infidelity.
The deaths were not explicitly registered as suicide at the time, but the findings pointed to that conclusion, stating that both were emotionally upset prior to being found in the fume-filled garage.
Mr Buchanan's family had asked for a new inquest to be held in light of the convictions of Howell and Stewart.
Counsel to the coroner's office Sean Doran read the original verdicts at the outset of today's hearing.
"The clear implication of those findings was the deaths had been attributable to suicide," he said.
He added: "I think we are all aware that events since then have rendered those findings unsustainable."
In re-registering the deaths, Mr Leckey noted that in cases involving carbon monoxide poisoning it was not common practice to state exactly who was responsible, just the cause.
"But the deaths of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell were not ordinary deaths, they were exceptional," he said.
"And I am conscious of the fact the families wish at this inquest to set the record straight."
The coroner said he would therefore register the deaths as carbon monoxide poisoning but would add "homicidal" in brackets.
He also changed the place of death from the garage in Castlerock to the victims' respective homes in Coleraine.
Mr Leckey added: "Lesley Anne Elizabeth Howell and Trevor Andrew Buchanan went to their graves subject to the gross lie they had taken their own lives."
He said those lies were repeated at the original inquest.
"But the truth did come out and the truth is that they were murdered," he said.
"The function of this inquest is to put the record straight and I hope it will go some way to bringing closure to the families."
Earlier Mrs Bradford and Mr Buchanan's brother Gordon briefly went into the witness box to confirm factual details about the two victims, such as their place of birth. They both declined a copy of Mr Howell's letter when offered one.
After the verdict, Mr Buchanan again entered the witness box to respond to the coroner's verdict.
"I think it is important that the clarity you have referred to is in place and I and my family would be happy with what you have indicated there," he said.
"I wish to express the thanks of our family to the court for the expeditious manner this has been dealt with and the clarity around the verdict."
Mr Leckey thanked him for his remarks.
"I am very conscious of the difficult time both families have endured over the last couple of years," the coroner said.
"And I must say I regard the police investigation that culminated in the convictions as very efficient and thorough and would wish to commend the team of police officers involved."
Outside court, Mrs Bradford, flanked by her husband Michael, welcomed the new verdict.
"We are just pleased with the decision that the coroner has made to set the record straight," she said.
"It's been an awful two years and we just hope this can be the beginning of some closure for us."
Gordon Buchanan also gave his reaction.
"The recording of the new verdict is very important to the Buchanan family. It sets the record straight and it reflects the truth of what happened in 1991: that Trevor's death was due to murder and not to suicide.
"And this now allows the Public Records Office to change their records to clarify and to show what really happened then and that is good for us as a family but not only for us but for future generations."