Deric Henderson’s book Let This Be Our Secret, published tomorrow, gives the inside story on the double murder that gripped the province. After two years investigating the case, he shares his thoughts on Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart’s dangerous relationship with JOANNE SAVAGE.
WHEN Ireland editor of the Press Association, Deric Henderson, received a tip-off on January 30, 2009 about a big scandal in Coleraine, he could not have imagined that it would lead him to a story that has gripped Northern Ireland.
The PSNI, investigating what was originally thought to have been a double suicide, had arrested two people on suspicion of murder: Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart.
The bodies of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan, spouses of the accused, had been discovered in a fume-filled car in the garage of a property in Castlerock in May 1991.
Colin and Hazel had been conducting an affair when their partners were found dead.
Howell was a high-flying dentist with a practice in Ballymoney, an apparently upstanding member of the community with strong Christian faith, a man who read Bible stories to his children and played Christian music in his practice.
Hazel was the blonde and beautiful wife of an RUC man, to all appearances shy and respectable, a farmer’s daughter and, like Howell, a devoted member of Coleraine Baptist Church.
The police had been happy with a verdict of double suicide in 1991 and a 1992 inquest concluded that Lesley and Trevor, devastated at the discovery of their partners’ infidelity, had died by their own hand.
Police had failed even to take fingerprints from the scene and Howell and his accomplice remained entirely above suspicion. This was particularly devastating for the Buchanan family who had faith that police would uncover the truth: Trevor and three other sons had been RUC men.
Everyone had been fooled by Howell’s charisma and status, his silver tongue and professional success. And no-one suspected wrongdoing of Hazel, an excellent mother who was always so well turned out.
Howell had married again; so too had Hazel. Time passed. Lesley and Trevor’s children grew up believing that their parent had committed suicide - something which caused them much pain.
Now, 18 years later, the incredible truth was about to come to light.
Colin Howell, depressed after the death of his son Matthew in 2007 and financially ruined after investing in a bogus scheme to recover Japanese gold in the Philippines, had walked into a police station and made a confession: he had murdered Lesley and Trevor with the help of his then lover Hazel.
His guilty conscience had finally caught up with him - the pressure of keeping his gruesome secrets buried had become too much.
A double murder, forbidden passion, betrayal, religious hypocrisy, apparent police bungling and two accused who didn’t appear to fit the expected criminal profile: Deric was, understandably, immediately gripped.
The reports of the 1991 double suicide hadn’t come much to his attention. He had been busy reporting on talks that would eventually become the peace process.
This time he was focused on the case.
“I just couldn’t get this story out of my head. I told my wife Claire that it would make a book. Within a week of receiving the tip-off I was committed to researching this. It is, without question, the most fascinating story I have ever worked on.”
Deric Henderson has worked as a journalist in Northern Ireland for four decades - first at the Tyrone Constitution in his native Omagh, then at the Belfast Telegraph before joining PA in 1980 - and so has reported on countless grim cases. But even he was shocked by the impact this case had on him as investigations developed.
Exhaustive research furnished him with a deep insight into the lives of the main figures in the story.
What he has uncovered is nothing short of sensational.
Let This Be Our Secret looks closely at Lesley and Colin Howell and Hazel and Trevor Buchanan, their background, their personalities, their motivations and the terrible events that unfolded. For two years Deric was consumed by the case and describes writing the book as a “humbling experience”.
“No-one could imagine how things would turn out when these two couples’ lives collided,” he says. “All the strengths and weaknesses of human beings are in this story.”
Deric recalls the high drama of Howell’s court appearances.
“Howell loved it. He was centre stage and all of us were hanging on his every word.
“I’ve covered trials for 40 years and this was far and away the most gripping. When he took the stand it was brilliant, sensational. The drama, the theatre - this guy was something else.
“Howell had been waiting for this. He had obviously prepared it all. He would contradict prosecuting counsel, he would insist, with such confidence, that everyone had misunderstood him.
“The judge became impatient because he talked at such length. It was compelling, fascinating.
“He compared Hazel to a little orphan in India, wanting his money. He paid for everything for her - petrol, electricity, clothes. Whatever she wanted, he paid for it.”
Deric regards Howell as a complicated man, an intelligent and deeply flawed individual.
“Outwardly Howell is very talented. He was a good dentist - though according to colleagues not as good as he thought he was. Religion was a big thing in his life, although he could be brutal.
“He had redeeming features - he did a lot of charity work out in India and Romania and he gave away a lot of money to charity. But there’s obviously a dark side to him.
“He’s narcissistic and sociopathic, someone with a massive ego who sees only his own point of view.
“But you can understand how Hazel Buchanan fell completely under his spell.”
Deric is certain that Hazel had been swept off her feet by Howell and that the infatuation was mutual. In his opinion, it was this passion that allowed her to be part of Howell’s heinous project to end the lives of Lesley and Trevor, leaving the way clear for them to be together.
“Hazel was completely and utterly in love with Colin Howell at the time of the murders.
“She told her friends that she knew it was wrong, she knew what the affair was doing to Trevor, but she couldn’t help it - she was in love. And Howell was besotted with her.”
Deric has no doubts about Hazel’s guilt: “I think she is in denial about her actions. And I think her children, her husband David Stewart and some members of her family are all in denial too.”
He maintains that Hazel showed herself to be mentally strongest: it was Howell who cracked and confessed what he had done to police.
“Hazel was taking this to her grave. She always worried about Howell.
“Mentally, as it turned out, she was the stronger of the two of them. She had that haunted look. Even when you saw her in all her finery and glory she was always worried - she never allowed anyone to get too close to her.
“She worried that some day it would all come out. And then it happened.
“Howell told the church elders, police arrested him and then the same three officers went to arrest Hazel.
“They waited in her house for 45 minutes and they were careful that she shouldn’t receive any prior warning that they were coming. She had been at the dentist when they arrived. She walked into the house, she saw the three people waiting for her and she knew instantly.
“They took her to Coleraine police station and she said, ‘Will I be long? How long until I get out?’ She was still in total denial.”
But it is Lesley Howell (nee Clarke) who fascinates Deric most.
“She was a wonderful person, kind, vivacious and charming.
“Lesley was born in Plymouth, brought up in Scotland and Dublin, and came to live in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. She trained as a nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital and she was fantastic, even winning Nurse of the Year. Then she met Howell, a dental student at Queen’s.
“I saw the letters she wrote to her friend saying that she didn’t really fancy Howell at first. But Howell persisted.
“Lesley was the first girl he’d ever slept with. She started to think he was the man for her and they married in July 1983.
“They both entered the marriage with doubts and it was never a match made in heaven.
“Lesley was fit for Howell. She was smart and she could knock him back with a one-liner. He couldn’t hack that - she could deal with him. But with Hazel he maybe felt he could be in control.
“She was in bits over the failure of her marriage to Colin.”
Trevor Buchanan had been equally distressed by his wife’s betrayal. While interviewing people for the book it became clear to Deric that he had been an incredibly decent, well-liked man, whose family had been devastated by his so-called suicide.
“The only bad thing anyone ever said about Trevor Buchanan was that he drove too fast.
“I cannot stop thinking about his father Jim, who was in bad health when Trevor died. He couldn’t understand why his son would take his life and he died before realising that the daughter-in-law he had forgiven for her infidelity had a hand in his son’s death.”
Deric believes that at the time of her death Lesley was still hoping to win her husband back. Poignantly, she had got her hair done and visited a sunbed on the day of her murder: she was trying to look her best to capture Colin’s attention.
“I spent some time researching the last day of her life,” Deric continues. “It was her son Daniel’s birthday and she went to buy him a present; she got red low lights in her hair; she met her friend for coffee; she chatted with her nextdoor neighbour.
“Lesley had an appointment that day to visit a sunbed and while there she fell asleep listening to Enya. You get the impression that she was trying to win back Colin. She had lost weight and she was trying to compete with Hazel Buchanan for his attentions.
“Even though the marriage was in crisis, here was a girl who up to the very end was saying, ‘I’ll win him back, I’ll get him back’.”
It seems impossible to understand why Howell, rather than commit a double murder, didn’t ask his wife for a divorce and set about legitimately pursuing a relationship with his lover, who could also have sought a divorce from her husband.
In Deric’s view, the barrier was Howell’s well-crafted image as an upstanding member of Coleraine Baptist Church.
“He couldn’t divorce Lesley because he didn’t see it as compatible with his Baptist faith. He felt he couldn’t divorce her.
“One night in bed after her father had died she sat up and said to Colin, ‘I wish I was dead, I wish I was in heaven’. She turned over and went to sleep and Howell had the realisation that he could end her life and let her go to heaven.
“He knew Trevor hadn’t been coping well with Hazel’s infidelity and he thought he would send him to heaven too.”
Let This Be Our Secret by Deric Henderson is priced £12.99 and is available in the News Letter bookshop on 02890 897700.