Coleraine Times editor David Rankin reveals for the first time the explosive findings of consultant psychiatrist Dr Helen Harbinson, who interviewed double killer Colin Howell over a period of a year in Maghaberry Prison.
Colin Howell admitted in a prison interview with a psychiatrist he was a sex addict.
When Dr Helen Harbinson returned to Maghaberry on June 1, 2009 she found the prisoner “more resigned” to his fate; however, any improvement in his fragile mental state was, she observed, “superficial”.
Prescribed with the antidepressant Seroxat and the antipsychotic drug Largactil, Howell continued to be “distressed by the loss of his freedom, the consequences of the murders he has committed and the impact on the families involved”, recorded Dr Harbinson.
“He believes that although he is intelligent he has little insight or wisdom. He thinks that perhaps he confessed because at some level he realised he needed to come into prison to appreciate fully the consequences of what he has done.
“At the time of his arrest many things in his life were out of control including his finances and his marriage. He also felt his ability to practice dentistry was deteriorating,” she added.
“Eighteen years earlier his first marriage was in trouble and he was in financial difficulties, but his responses then were different. Unlike other prisoners he is giving evidence against himself. He told me, ‘I’m struggling with the consequences’.”
Howell was on suicide watch but indicated he had no intention of taking his life.
“He believes he has been mentally ill and that there is a spiritual dimension to that,” said Dr Harbinson in her report.
“He believes demons can manifest as illness in the way they did in the Bible, for example as epilepsy, deafness and lameness. He said the mind can be altered by demons but helped by medicine. Medicine is not, however, a cure.”
The former dentist “told me that at the time when he killed his first wife and Trevor Buchanan he had a choice, but he did not feel as if he had. He allowed his mind to be given over to a thinking process.
“He said he did not want to sexually assault any of his victims, he regretted it afterwards, but it was like an addiction. He knew it was wrong so had to hide it.
“Since coming into prison he has gained logic. Everyone has areas of weakness, sex was his Achilles heel. He said with hindsight he realises that what he did was avoidable. He has now lost the compulsion and appreciates the consequences.”
He said that he was now not experiencing any auditory hallucinations but felt his general paranoia was understandable.
“He described how, before he was transferred to the prison hospital, he was frightened by a number of Polish prisoners who were playing pool. One of them stared at him incessantly. They slowly manoeuvred their way across the room and blocked one of the CCTV cameras. He felt this was rehearsed. He believed he was at risk. He had heard rumours that he would be harmed.
“He believes that had he stayed in the same position, he would have been attacked, so he moved. He mentioned this to another prisoner who said he was paranoid.
“At the time he believed he heard a voice telling him to move, but he is no longer troubled by voices. I asked about an incident he previously described, when he thought that by cleaning the ward bathroom he had disturbed a dragon’s den. He told me that dragons are like demons.
“He believed that the prisoner who told him about the dragon’s den was implying there was witchcraft at work. There were a number of items set in an orderly way in the bathroom which he took as an indication of witchcraft.
“At that stage his instinct told him it was witchcraft but he does not believe that now. He believes the other man was mentally ill. With respect to his thoughts about his life appearing on television he said that this was triggered by his belief that God sees everything.
“He described how in the Old Testament King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, then arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed on the battlefield.
“That was all done in God’s sight. He (God) sees it all. He no longer believes his life has been played out on television.
“He repeated that his criminal behaviour was compulsive, like an addiction. Some Christians struggle with alcohol addiction, his sexual behaviour was his addiction. Eighteen years ago death and murder did not bother him.
“At the time however,‘I couldn’t see outside the pressure cooker situation which I had created. I couldn’t see any other way out’. Later he saw parallels between his behaviour and that of King David. He said if God was able to forgive David and ‘recycle him’ then he could be forgiven too.
“He believes that his sexual activities were the result of low self-esteem. He told me he looked at a lot of pornography. He felt he had to be worshipped by women, ‘like a small god’. He believes ‘There is something instinctive in men that drives them to get to the top’. “
Although he disclosed to his second wife, Kyle, in 1998 that he had killed his first wife Lesley he now wondered if it was right to confess his crimes to the police.
Dr Harbinson noted: “Some days he thinks he was right to confess, on others he regrets it. At times he feels selfish that he has confessed because he has distressed so many people.
“He thought that it would be important for his first wife’s memory and honour that he should be truthful. He thought it was important for the Buchanan family too.
“He believes however that he did not think his confession through properly, or the consequences.
“He said the police also want to question him about two other deaths, the death of his father in law, ten days before the death of his first wife and the death of a woman in a caravan park where he stayed last Christmas while his wife and family were in America. He would deny any involvement in these killings.”
The psychiatrist wrote that Howell’s mental well being had improved and that he was “preoccupied with religious and spiritual matters in a way that would be in keeping with his faith”.
• Colin Howell and his then lover Hazel Buchanan (now Stewart) murdered their spouses in 1991.
The pair managed to keep the killings – deemed a double suicide at the time – a secret for almost two decades before Howell handed himself in to police in 2009.
They are currently serving life sentences for the murders, Howell a minimum 21-year term and Stewart a minimum of 18 years.
Killing his wife ‘an act of euthanasia ... blessed by God’
An act of euthanasia ... blessed by God. That was Colin Howell’s fervent conviction of why he killed his wife and mother of his four children, Lesley, and Trevor Buchanan, the policeman husband of his lover Hazel in 1991.
At the time Howell was deeply religious and was the leader of the Youth Fellowship in Coleraine Baptist Church.
Consultant psychiatrist, Dr Helen Harbinson, asked how he reconciled his faith with the fact that he had confessed to the double killing.
“He told me he regarded what he had done to his wife as a form of euthanasia. After her father Henry Clarke’s death she was very depressed.
“Late one night in bed she was crying. She told him she believed she was going to die soon and she could not wait to get to heaven. He felt it was his duty to help her.
“He said he had done so much harm to her, he felt he could not help her other than by ending her life. He wanted to relieve her of her grief and pain. At that stage he believed Trevor Buchanan was going through an identical struggle to Lesley.”
He later described this as an ‘Eureka moment’ and that “God would bless his actions in killing them”. He admitted that it was “horrible” when Lesley and Trevor had struggled as he attacked them.
Dr Harbinson noted: “He told me when Trevor reacted and struggled ‘the wheels came off’ and the same with Lesley to a lesser extent. It was horrific...
“He was distressed when his wife called out their son Matthew’s name [as he suffocated her]. He said however that he had gone too far and at that stage ‘it was like a surgical procedure’. After that ‘I sanitised the memory’. The experience was surreal.”
Later Howell broke down in tears because he had robbed the Buchanan family of closure by presenting the deaths as suicide. ‘They can now grieve properly because their secret shame has gone.’
“He was so tormented by the thought of eternal damnation that he believed he had to confess the killings in order to be forgiven and free. The elders of the Church said he would be free if he told all.”