Howell sentenced over sex assaults

FORMER dentist Colin Howell has been sentenced to five-and-a-half years for indecently assaulting five of his female patients while they were under sedation.

The former lay preacher, already serving 21 years for murdering his wife and his ex-lover’s husband, pleaded guilty to 12 charges of taking advantage of the women over four years between 2004 and 2008.

He groped and fondled some as he helped them down the stairs of his practice in Ballymoney while he placed the hand of another on his groin while she lay unconscious on the chair.

A number had asked to be heavily sedated because they had a serious phobia about dental treatments.

The 52-year-old self-professed devout Christian stared impassively forward as judge Corine Philpott passed the sentence, which will run concurrent with his life murder tariff.

She noted that some of his victims did not even know what had happened to them.

“These injured parties did not know what was going on, they did not know precisely what happened, but you did,” she told him.

The judge added: “You are an intelligent man and you had the means to stop yourself from doing this...you did not.”

Last year, the dentist was sentenced to life in prison, with a 21-year minimum term, after confessing to murdering his wife Lesley and Trevor Buchanan, the policeman husband of his then lover Hazel Stewart, in Coleraine in May 1991.

Stewart, 48, was also convicted of the double murder, which police believed for 19 years was suicide, after standing trial earlier this year. She is serving an 18-year minimum life term.

The bodies of Mrs Howell, 31, and Mr Buchanan, 32, were found in a car in a fume-filled garage in the seaside town of Castlerock. The dentist had staged the scene after poisoning the pair with gas piped from his car exhaust as they slept in their own homes in nearby Coleraine.

Before sentencing for the indecent assaults yesterday, defence QC Richard Weir insisted that Howell had not sedated the women to facilitate the crimes, instead took advantage of them while they were knocked out for genuine medical reasons.

He said it was incorrect to claim he “systemically” abused his patients as five women represented only a tiny proportion of all those people he treated.

Mr Weir argued that the assaults were not at the higher level of seriousness and claimed none involved direct “skin to skin” contact.

The QC also stressed that the crimes would not have emerged if it had not been for the dentist admitting them.

“They came to light while he was confessing to police to killing his wife and Trevor Buchanan,” he said.

Howell admitted assaulting two of the women when he was first interviewed by police about the murders in January 2009. The subsequent offences emerged after more police inquiries and further questioning.

Mr Weir added: “They wouldn’t have come to light if it wasn’t for the conscience of the accused. He has demonstrated his genuineness and his remorse and determination to own up to all his wrongdoings so he might begin some sort of atonement for the crimes he has committed.”

Howell pleaded guilty to three of the counts last October and admitted a further nine earlier this month just moments before his trial was due to start.

Five other charges facing him were not pursued and will remain on the books.

Dressed in a grey suit and navy striped tie, he said nothing as his sentence was handed down.

But last week he apologised to the patients he attacked as he changed his plea to guilty on the nine counts.

As the first charge was read to him, with a number of his victims sitting yards away in the public gallery, he spoke from the dock in a low and cracked voice.

“Guilty and I am sorry,” he said.

Yesterday judge Philpott acknowledged his apologies and his early plea of guilty on some of the counts.

But handing down the five-and-a-half year term she told him he could have stopped, but refused to do so.

Noting that he had another 19 years to serve, she said she would not impose a Sexual Offences Prevention Order but said the authorities may wish to review this upon his release.

Having been struck off as a dentist, the judge said she did not think it necessary to issue a disqualification from working with children order as well.