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In 40 years of reporting I have never seen two such cold and callous killers . . .

This week one of the most sensational Irish trials ever ended when a jury found Hazel Stewart guilty of murdering her husband and her lover's wife. Deric Henderson, the veteran Ireland editor of the Press Association, has followed the case since the beginning. His book on the killings will be published later this year.

It was logged in my 1991 diary, dated Monday, May 21 -- "Couple die in suicide at Castlerock". I don't recall the deaths of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan, but I remember the time well. Peter Brooke was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The British government was in secret contact with the IRA and I was just out of hospital after a major health scare.

We were taking the first tentative steps on the road to a peace settlement, and our attention was far removed from that beautiful part of the North Coast where two bodies were found behind a row of houses known as the Twelve Apostles, high above the seaside town of Castlerock.

It was a story that barely registered outside Coleraine, Co Derry, where they lived at the time, and Omagh, Co Tyrone, the home town of Trevor Buchanan's family. Belfast was still a dark and dangerous place.

Fast forward 20 years and who would have believed so many column inches and air time would be devoted to a court story about a tragedy that had more or less passed us by -- but which has now gripped the country. Forty years in this business and I've never known anything like it.

Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart murdered their partners without pity, apparently for love, and in Howell's case also allegedly for money. It was a secret Stewart wanted to take to the grave.

Howell confessed all to the police after being conned out of £353,000 in a crazy scheme to recover gold bullion which was supposedly buried in the Philippines, admitting to another affair and indecently assaulting women in his dental clinic at Ballymoney, Co Antrim.

He was a born-again Christian who apparently knew his Bible inside out, and who delivered a compelling and credible testimony at the Hazel Stewart trial, which the jury clearly believed. It was as if he was divesting himself of this terrible time in his life, trying to cleanse his soul.

It appeared that he was bringing everything to the Cross -- as all good, God-fearing Baptists do when troubled and seeking the Lord's forgiveness.

He was in the witness box for four days, three of them under intense cross-examination by Paul Ramsey QC, Stewart's formidable defence lawyer who knew he had to be quick on his feet to trip up this cunning and manipulative man.

It was without doubt a gripping and theatrical performance, even though his lengthy and at times convoluted expositions clearly irritated Judge Anthony Hart.

At one stage, an exasperated Mr Ramsey asked him: "I would appreciate if you could restrict your answers to two sentences, Mr Howell."

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But it was obvious the jury was rivetted by his responses, speaking the sort of disarming language that used to charm Hazel Stewart.

Just listen to this. On his claim that Stewart seduced him at the outside of a torrid and passionate affair: "Flies go into spiders' webs because they think there is some food for them there, and I willingly went after the bait and we got caught."

On their continuing affair: "Hazel and I were waltzing together, in time. All the side-stepping was done together. I was not dragging her around the floor. I may have been the lead partner in that dance, but she was doing it in perfect harmony, and willingly."

On his claim that his bond with Stewart strengthened when he arranged for her to have a secret abortion in London, even before the affair was discovered: "It was like a blood contract which we had secretly signed together of the murder of an unborn baby. It was a huge bond."

On why he thought Lesley had gained the upper-hand in their marriage when she could humiliate him with a sarcastic remark after discovering he had been cheating: "King Solomon, considered to be the wisest man, said a man who commits adultery gives up his strength to one who is cruel. I wouldn't want to argue with the wisest man in the world."

I have covered court cases for the last 40 years. I was in the old Belfast City Commission Court when the Shankill Butchers were sentenced.

I was in Dublin for the trial of two men accused of Lord Mountbatten's murder. And when Peter Robinson decided to pay a fine rather than go to jail for his antics at Clontibret.

I was there the day the eccentric Malcolm MacArthur was jailed for the murder of nurse Bridie Gargan. There was the inquest into the 1988 SAS killings of three IRA volunteers, so-called Supergrass trials in Belfast, and more recently the acquittal of the only man accused with the Omagh bomb atrocity.

But nothing could compare with the drama and tension in this courtroom over the four weeks.

Understandably Dublin took a sideways look at the opening stages. Matters of a political and fiscal nature were given priority, but once the election was out of the way, the level of interest heightened. North of the border it was phenomenal.

There was a curiosity and a fascination, especially among women. They came from all over, arriving with the security staff and the delivery men, maybe two-and-a-half hours before the trial resumed.

At one stage they filled the waiting area and, even though only a couple were admitted to the public gallery because space was at a premium, they stayed on anyway, just to catch a glimpse of Stewart and her entourage.

The Northern Ireland Court Service received daily inquiries from callers asking if they could be allowed in. One woman wondered if it would be possible to bring a party of 30, because she wanted to organise a special bus trip.

All the focus was on Stewart's failed attempt to prove her innocence, but there was also an extraordinary side-show that must have also caught the attention of the judge, Mr Justice Anthony Hart, and jury.

It involved so many relatives. There was Trevor Buchanan's family: his brothers Victor, Gordon, Jackie, Raymond; and his two sisters, Melva and Valerie. All hurting, grieving and listening in disbelief as the details of what their former sister-in-law got up to.

It was lurid when Howell revealed intimate details of their sex life and then shocking as he disclosed, sometimes in a matter-of-fact manner, how they went about his business on the night of May 18, 1991, and the early hours of the following morning.

Howell the fantasist, Howell the sociopath, who could manipulate and deceive, or as one man who got to know his dark side described him "a charming, controlled psychopath -- somebody who felt an internal conflict about his inability to feel guilt".

Then there was the broadcasting of taped recordings of police interviews Stewart gave confessing her role. How she opened the door and allowed Howell in to gas her sleeping husband.

She did nothing to stop him. She cut up and burned the garden hose he used to pipe in the poisonous carbon monoxide fumes, washed the bedclothes, and then agreed to concoct a story that fooled investigating police officers.

Hazel Stewart tried to present herself as the innocent in all of this, caught up in some unimaginable act not of her making and who afterwards lied to protect herself and her two children.

But that night, the woman whose husband worshipped the ground she walked on was just as cold, unforgiving and as calculated as Howell.

It was distressing to see her two children -- Andrew, a graphic designer, and daughter Lisa, a nurse -- weep uncontrollably as the sentencing judge instructed two female prison officers: "Take her away."

David Stewart, a former police Chief Superintendent and her second husband, who was so loyal and attentive, seemed to age 10 years in as many minutes.

It was hard as well to watch the Buchanan family, so dignified and respectful throughout this ordeal, struggle with their emotions. Their lives have been on hold. They just wanted Hazel Stewart held to account and punished for what she did. Nothing more.

And sitting there as well was Lesley Howell's only daughter Lauren, almost waif-like, a lovely young lady, just like her late mother who spent her early years in Dublin.

It was a city the then Lesley Clarke loved and was sorry to leave when she moved north to become a brilliant young nurse, before eventually meeting the man who murdered her.


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