The 1992 inquest: Howell and Stewart fooled us all

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IT didn’t take Woodward and Bernstein to work out that it was a story no journalist would want to miss.

The inquests of police constable Trevor Buchanan and mother-of-four Lesley Howell were held in Coleraine in May 1992 - a year after their bodies were found in apparent double suicide in Castlerock.

Back then I was a news reporter on this very paper, writing “bombs and bullets” stories - as they were indelicately called by mainland journalists - for national newspapers such as The Sunday Express in my spare time.

As I walked into Court No1 of the new Coleraine Courthouse at Mountsandel Road that morning - next door to Court No2 where Hazel Stewart was convicted last week - I sensed something very different, something unique.

In those days inquests were usually held in a small hearing room downstairs. It was an uncomfortable experience for a reporter as one often had to sit close to distressed family members or witnesses. There was no press bench.

However upstairs that day there wasn’t a seat left in the public galleries with members of both the Howell and Buchanan families, friends and church people all gathered, tense and stoic, anxious for proceedings to begin.

The hearing was held during the height of the Troubles and unusually at the start the coroner, Robin Hastings - an eccentric character who often wore open-toed sandals and carried what looked like a school satchel - addressed myself and another reporter from The Chronicle. There was no other media present.

He said that he could not ask us not to report on the case but said we should record the evidence as sensitively as possible.

That alone struck me as odd.

Anyone who has ever been to an inquest will know that it is upsetting for all families - whatever the cause of death of their loved ones. Many of my press colleagues despised covering them because they are were always moving, often harrowing.

So why would coroner Hastings make such a comment?

The sad and tragic details which unfolded that morning were explosive: Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan had somehow agreed to kill themselves after discovering their partners were having an affair. Figures from Coleraine Baptist Church had counselled the estranged couples but sadly to no avail.

Lesley had spiralled into a deep depression following her husband Colin Howell’s marital betrayal and the sudden death of her father Harry in her home just a few days before. It was seemingly the last straw.

She had somehow convinced Trevor Buchanan to end it all. Two innocent victims, both with young children, who could not bear living.

It was astounding.

I remember Hazel Buchanan being upset and crying as her deposition was read out but Colin Howell was impassive, serious, controlled.

Every now and again a muffled cry or sob could be heard and a handkerchief raised to wipe away tears. The atmosphere was that of a glassy, stony silence.

That week I reported the sensational findings over a two page spread and other than one newspaper in Belfast which I corresponded for, there was no further media coverage.

The week after that this incredible story evaporated into the mists of time.

I’ve always felt that because Trevor Buchanan was a constable in the RUC and he had apparently committed suicide - that the least said about it then the better. That only benefited the killers, of course.

But as we say in the newspaper business, no one was talking.

Until January 29, 2009 that is, when Colin Howell - in a pique of some sort of religious epiphany - confessed to the murders and both he and Hazel Stewart were arrested.

That was another day I’ll never forget. I got a call from a contact saying that police were re-opening the 1991 Castlerock suicide case because Howell had admitted to the killings.

I was speechless.

Countless people have asked me since what did I think of that notorious inquest almost 20 years ago - did I suspect any foul play? Were there any clues?

No one I spoke to at the time suspected that Trevor or Lesley had been murdered - although we have since learnt that a few people close to Colin Howell and Lesley Stewart had expressed deep concern.

The Buchanan family never believed that Trevor had killed himself and their long and dignified wait for the truth was finally rewarded last week.

But one thing’s for sure, the killers had fooled everyone, including me.