A Baptist minister will be among key witnesses to testify at the trial of Hazel Stewart, a former play school assistant accused of the murders of her policeman husband and ex-lover’s wife in Coleraine nearly 20 years ago, a court heard yesterday.
John Hansford was the pastor at the time of the deaths of Constable Trevor Buchanan, 32, and Mrs Lesley Howell, 31, who along with their immediate families were members of his church.
Mr Justice Anthony Hart told a jury of nine men and three women after they were sworn in at the start of a trial, which is expected to last four weeks, that the minister’s wife Elizabeth is to be called as well to give evidence.
Stewart, 47 - she later remarried - has pleaded not guilty to the murders in May 1991 when the bodies of her husband and Mrs Howell were discovered in a car filled with poisonous carbon monoxide fumes in a garage behind a row of houses in Castlerock, known as the Twelve Apostles.
At the time it was thought they had died as a result of a suicide pact because of their distress over the affair, but police reopened the investigation in January 2009 when Mrs Howell’s husband, dentist Colin Howell, 52, was questioned again by detectives.
He was jailed for 21 years last November after he admitted gassing his wife - the mother of their four children - and Constable Buchanan, who was a scenes of crime officer.
Wearing a green brocade coat and black trousers, Stewart, 47, of Ballystrone Road, Coleraine, stood to attention in the dock with her hands clasped, nodded and mouthed ‘Yes’ when she was asked to confirm her name and if she was ready for the trial to begin.
Her second husband, retired police chief superintendent David Stewart, her daughter Lisa and son Andrew sat just yards away in the public gallery beside Constable Buchanan’s brothers, Victor, Raymond, Jackie and Gordon, and two sisters, Valerie and Melva.
As 24 potential members of the jury were called, an ashen-faced Stewart sat motionless, between two prison officers, and watched as each of the 15 men and nine women made their way around the court to their seats.
Of the 12 jurors chosen, three are women and nine are men. The remainder will act as stand-bys. Each of them took the oath on the Bible.
Details of the people to be called to give evidence emerged as Mr Justice Hart addressed the jury, warning them not to discuss the case with anyone, including other jurors.
He gave the jury a brief outline of the case and told them that their verdict must be made on the basis of the evidence that they hear in court.
He asked each of them to consider if they had any connection to the case.
“Where you or any of your family members patients of Colin Howell. Did you know Constable Buchanan or are you a friend of Mr Stewart?,” asked the judge.
He also urged them not to use social networking sites or carry out research about the case on the internet. At one stage he told them: “People can put forward views that are wrong, malicious or ignorant.”
As well as Pastor Hansford and his wife, other members of Coleraine Baptist Church at the time of the deaths, Jim Flanagan and David Green, who was an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Dr Alan Topping, his wife Margaret, Linda Brockbank, Harry and Tania Donaghy and Derek McAuley, will be giving evidence.
Shirley McPhilimy, Ruth Middleton, Carolyn Young, Gillian Alcorn, Betty Bradley and Rosemary Legge - people who knew Mrs Howell - also stepped forward to identify themselves by raising their right hand in front of the jury, as did Lesley Clyde and Ronald Gray.
Other witnesses due to testify are Mrs Howell’s brother, Christopher, his former wife Jennifer, Trevor McAuley, Marshall Reilly, another dentist, and three members of the Barn Fellowship in north Antrim which Howell joined after the deaths - Andrew Brown, Graham Sterling and William Patterson.
Pastor Hansford, his wife, Mr Brown, Mr Reilly, Christopher Clarke and his ex-wife were not in court for the hearing which lasted less than an hour.
Neither was Colin Howell, who is serving his sentence at Maghaberry Prison. But he is expected to appear at some stage to give evidence against his former lover.
He made a second statement, running to 43 pages, to police after admitting his guilt.
He ran two dental practices, one in Ballymoney and a second in Bangor, Co Down.
Mr Justice Hart also told the hearing that the dentist had been involved in a counselling service, Family Spectrum, and a charity which the judge called Acts of Faith.
The trial is expected to continue today (Tuesday) with a statement by the Crown outlining the circumstances of the deaths.
Stewart was granted continuing bail.
There is a considerable media interest in the case with BBC, RTE and Sky cameras attending Monday’s sitting.