Howell plans for when he is a free man again

By Deric Henderson, Press Association COLIN Howell believes he can make a new life for himself once he finishes his time in jail.

Just hours before he confessed everything to his church elders, and then the police in January 2009 he powered up his laptop and Googled: Double Murders.

He checked out various sites and estimated how long he would have to spend in jail for poisoning his wife Lesley and Trevor Buchanan. Howell reckoned if he got 20 years, he could be out by the time he was 70, and still have another 20 years ahead of him.

On Friday at Belfast Crown Court he heard Mr Justice Anthony Hart tell him it was will be at least 2029 before he is free again. He was just a year out.

He was led into the dock five minutes before the judge took his seat. Howell was in the same light grey suit with its unfashionable wide lapels, white shirt, striped tie and slip on shoes.

It was the same attire he wore when he first pleaded guilty a fortnight ago and then again last Monday as Ciaran Murphy, the Crown prosecutor, revealed the shocking details of how, when, where and why he murdered his wife and Trevor Buchanan.

His second wife Kyle has filed for divorce, but he still wears a narrow gold ring on his wedding finger.

He stared straight ahead, sometimes shutting his eyes, occasionally leaning forward, his head bowed slightly with his hands resting on his thighs. Incarceration has clearly taken its toll. He looked a sad and broken man. Could this really be the same Colin Howell as remembered by former friends and ex-associates before he lost his liberty?

Opinions varied. He could be charming as well as arrogant; a devout Christian who played the guitar and read his children bedtime stories; generous, competitive and who kept himself fit; a Manchester United supporter and a wealthy and busy dentist with an appointments book which was always full.

He had the spacious dock more or less to himself this afternoon and maybe time to think. So imagine what he might have reflected on as he waited to hear if he correctly guessed the minimum time he would spend at Maghaberry Prison.

Was it the anguished look on little Dan's face when he returned home one afternoon six months after his wife's death to find his youngest son, then aged two, crying and pointing towards a framed photograph of his mother.

Howell used to have nightmares then and sometimes in the dead of night he could see, in his mind, Lesley's face, young, vivacious, and radiant - she always fussed about her wavy hair - coming towards him, smiling, and imagining he could hear her say: "Colin, I forgive you. I forgive you."

Maybe it was the look of terror on Trevor Buchanan`s face when he wrestled and overpowered the startled police officer to the bedroom floor, trapping him in a duvet, before ramming one end of a garden hose into his mouth to kill him with the emitting carbon monoxide fumes?

This, just weeks after the two men met in John Hansford`s office at Coleraine Baptist Church, when the Pastor was counselling the two couples in an attempt to save their marriages.

Or was it the look of disbelief and astonishment on the faces of his three Barn Christian Fellowship church elders who listened to his confession around the kitchen table at his home outside Castlerock that frosty January morning almost two years ago when he returned home, for the final time, after dropping off two of his children at a nearby primary school?

This, just before one of his closest confidants reached for his mobile phone to call the police in Coleraine while Howell, trembling and shaking, closed his eyes to pray and seek God's forgiveness.

Mr Justice Hart shifted in his seat in Court 12 at Belfast Crown Court and looked at Howell who was invited to sit down.

Two prisoner officers, one a woman, flanked him, one setting aside the handcuffs which had been removed. There was no sign of his co-accused Hazel Stewart who has been out on bail since her arrest almost two years ago. She will have her day in court when she presents herself before a jury at Coleraine Courthouse on February 7.

Howell's barrister, Richard Weir QC, his junior counsel Francis Rafferty and instructing solicitor, Adrian Harvey, sat in front of their client.

Mr Justice Hart spoke for just under half an hour, occasionally taking a drink of water as he read from a prepared nine page statement, which referred to Howell's former lover as Hazel Buchanan. His face was more flushed than before, but he sat expressionless. The only time he showed any emotion - it was faint, no more than a flicker - was when Mr Justice Hart spoke about how the dentist had gassed his wife as she cried out for their only son Matthew and the devastating impact Trevor's death must have had on his family, especially his elderly parents whose remaining years had been blighted.

"Not only were their children deprived of the love and companionship of their respective parents throughout their childhood, but their brothers and sisters also suffered a grievous loss," he said.

Trevor Buchanan's brothers and two sisters once again filled one side of the public gallery. Lesley's daughter Lauren sat in the crowd behind the dock, and a curious aunt from Mid Ulster who also thought the world of her niece, looked on. For some of the relatives and friends it was all too much. One woman wept as she was embraced afterwards by a clearly emotional Chris Clarke, Lesley's only brother, a hospital anaesthetist in the north of England who beat the snow to be in Belfast.

Howell spoke briefly to his legal representatives before the judge started to deliver his statement. He seemed to giggle as one stage, but he never looked to see who was behind him. He would have recognised some familiar faces, some going back more than the time he will have to spend in jail. He never looked at anybody, not even a backward glance as he held out his wrists to bed handcuffed again.