I took the call on a Friday morning in January 2009. A familiar voice whispered, “There’s a couple being questioned up in Coleraine about two murders which were thought to be suicides. Nobody seems to know what it’s all about…” I didn’t know it then, but this would be one of the most sensational cases in British criminal history.
I’ve reported on scores of major murder trials in Northern Ireland, including such infamous cases as the sentencing of the Shankill Butchers in Belfast in 1979. But this was an unfolding, consuming and barely believable drama, replete with jealousy, murder, religion and sex, that happened right here on my doorstep. It was a murder case like no other and it became an obsession with me – and now it’s to be told in a four-part drama starring James Nesbitt.
Eighteen years previously, in 1991, 31-year-old Lesley Howell, a former nurse, and 32-year-old Trevor Buchanan, a policeman in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, were found dead in a car filled with carbon monoxide fumes in a garage behind a row of houses known as The Apostles, in the seaside town of Castlerock, Londonderry.
It seemed an open-and-shut case to investigating officers – a suicide pact involving a couple driven to take their own lives because their respective partners, Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan, had been having an affair. Coleraine Baptist Church, to which all four belonged, had been scandalised and anxious to get the inquiries over.
But the truth was very different.
Hazel Buchanan, an assistant at a local nursery, had been meeting Colin Howell, a respected dentist and pillar of the local community, for sex. They agreed to end their affair after they were spotted by one of the church elders. But four months later it resumed, to Colin’s wife Lesley’s dismay.
According to Colin, as she lay in bed one night she cried out, “This is going to be over soon. I am going to go to heaven. Maybe you and Hazel are meant to be together. I’ll never get over this. Trevor will never get over this.”
Colin called it his “Eureka moment”. He thought, “I can help you, I can help you.”
Even though there is an entry in my diary back in 1991 – “Two die in Castlerock suicide” – 18 years on I didn’t recall the deaths. At the time the British government had been involved in secret talks with the IRA and what became known as the Northern Ireland peace process was under way. The discovery of two bodies in a car had rated no more than a few paragraphs.
But the deaths of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan were a desperate tragedy, especially for their immediate families. Lesley’s children were too young to understand. One of her three sons, Daniel, grew up wondering why his mother would choose his birthday to kill herself. Lauren, the only daughter, would ask if she could have flowers planted on her mum’s grave so they could bloom in each of the four seasons.
Hazel Buchanan, meanwhile, used to sit at home telling her two children that their father was in heaven watching over them and wouldn’t it be great if they could see his smiling face again? She’d sigh: “Daddy and I had our problems, but I loved him very much.”
Colin and Hazel stayed together for another five or six years, in a dysfunctional relationship. He claimed that, after the murders, Hazel felt so guilty she liked to believe they weren’t really sinning by having sex as she lay drugged in his dentist’s chair.
They split up after she refused to marry him and begin a new life in Scotland. Colin was then introduced to a divorcee from New York, Kyle Jorgensen, at a Bible study meeting. Hazel met her future husband David Stewart at a gym they both belonged to.
Colin married Kyle in 1997. She had initially taken him for an ambitious, God-fearing dentist, with four children and a roving eye. Two years later, he told her a secret that left her stunned.
It took Kyle years to come to terms with her husband’s confession. Standing with a child in her arms in the kitchen of their luxury home in the hills above Northern Ireland’s north coast, Jorgensen pleaded with Howell to clear his conscience. “Colin, there’s grace,” she begged. “The Lord is giving you another chance. This is your chance. The truth will set you free. If you love your life, you won’t lose it.”
Colin and Lesley Howell (James Nesbitt and Laura Pyper) with their children
Prompted by his wife, Colin confessed to church elders. The police were called and he was arrested at home for the double murders of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan. He pleaded guilty at his trial and was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 21 years. The case made the news, but it was as nothing compared with Hazel’s 15-day hearing in Coleraine in 2011, which was momentous.
Hazel maintained she had been the victim of a controlling, evil man. Colin for his part claimed she had been his willing accomplice; his testimony against a woman he once wanted to marry was compelling and at times theatrical.
Colin has had plenty of time to reflect. He reads his Bible every day at Maghaberry Prison, near Lisburn, Antrim. He is considered a model prisoner. He gets on well with the rest of the prisoners and, given the history of longevity in his family, Colin confidently believes – as only he can – that he will have another 20 years ahead of him once he becomes a free man again, aged 70.
His father, sisters, some old friends – one of them a dentist from his church group, the evangelical Barn Christian Fellowship – and occasionally his daughter Lauren, now married with a baby, go to visit him. Kyle has divorced Colin and now lives in Florida with the five children she had with him. He sent them a cheque last Christmas, the proceeds of his prison earnings.
Glen Wallace and Genevieve O’Reilly as Trevor and Hazel Buchanan
Meanwhile, at Hydebank Wood women’s prison in south Belfast, Hazel still protests her innocence, having failed to have her convictions overturned. She also reads her Bible. She paints and works out regularly.
The steadfastness of her second husband, David Stewart, has not diminished. But the appeal process has run its course and, having been sentenced to a minimum of 18 years, Hazel won’t be home again until 2029.
Whatever the truth, the police stand accused of conducting an incompetent investigation. Hazel later confessed that, had she known the police were on their way to arrest her, she would have driven over a cliff. Instead she awaits a redemption that seems unlikely to come.
Seven years after that phone call I remain as fascinated and bewildered by the case as I ever was. I still can’t believe it.
This article was originally published in the 23-29 April 2016 issue of Radio Times magazine