Police were ‘alerted to suspicions’

Double killer Colin Howell.PICTURE MARK JAMIESON.
Double killer Colin Howell.PICTURE MARK JAMIESON.

POLICE were alerted to suspicions of foul play concerning the deaths of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan at the time of the incident, their new inquest was told.

A detective involved in the re-investigation, 18 years after the killings, confirmed that friends of the victims had passed their concerns over Colin Howell’s possible involvement to the original inquiry team.

At the trial of Hazel Stewart for the double murder earlier this year, Coleraine Crown Court heard seemingly contradictory evidence as to whether police had been told.

Three witnesses, one of them a policeman not involved directly in the case, said they relayed their suspicions to officers shortly after the bodies were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock in May 1991.

But, on the stand, the detective who led the RUC investigation, Jack Hutchinson, denied anyone had raised the suggestion of murder with him.

The initial police inquiry concluded the deaths were suicide.

That investigation is now subject to a probe by the independent complaints body, the Police Ombudsman.

During the second inquest into the deaths in Belfast, senior coroner John Leckey said it was his understanding, from reading media reports, that the individuals with suspicions had not passed these on.

But, at this point, a PSNI detective involved in the re-investigation suggested that was not the case.

“I think they did articulate their concerns at the time,” he said.

“An investigation of sorts took place but they did raise their concerns.”

The detective took the stand to confirm the factual chain of events from the time the bodies of Mrs Howell and Mr Buchanan were first discovered to the subsequent convictions of their respective partners for the double murder almost 20 years later.

In regard to the original post-mortem report on Mr Buchanan’s body, the officer said it did not note that the victim had a cut above his lip.

It has since emerged that he sustained the injury in a struggle with Howell before his murder.

The detective said it was important that this injury was recorded in the new inquest.

Noting this, Mr Leckey stressed that post-mortem examinations were not as detailed 20 years ago.

“The standards for a post-mortem in suspicious deaths back then are very different to the very exacting standards to which a post-mortem is carried out now,” he said.