TRIAL: Book everyone will want to read

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IT’S the book that everyone will want to read.

Deric Henderson’s much-awaited book on the 1991 Coleraine murders carried out by lovers Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart is expected to be published by Gill and Macmillan and some other mainland publishers this September.

The veteran investigative reporter delves deep into the background of the extraordinary case which has gripped Northern Ireland - from the murderous conspiracy carried out by the killers, the staged double suicide, their illicit love affair, the role of the church, the lure of financial gain and the dark secret they kept for 20 years.

The book will also reveal details of the sexual assaults Howell has already admitted carrying out on anaesthetised patients.

The author, who came back from Fleet Street in 1980, says he has never covered a better story.

“I covered the Shankhill Butchers story in the 1970s and that unbelievable trial,” Deric said.

“Then there was the Hunger Strikes in the 1980s and the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985 and Brooke talks in 1988, basically the start of the peace process when the British Government were talking secretly to the IRA, which was a massive story.

“I was in Gibraltar in 1988 for the SAS killings of members of the IRA which was big because some papers were taking five, six, seven, eight pages a day on it. Then in the 90s we had the talks process.

“But the Hazel Stewart trial was the most sensational I’ve ever covered and I’ve been in the business for 40 years. For drama and tension without doubt there has been nothing like it.”

Deric, a reporter for the Press Association, admits that he didn’t remember the story when it broke in May 1991 but he has a note of the May 1992 inquest, heard in Coleraine Courthouse, where Hazel Stewart was jailed for life last week.

He said: I didn’t realise the families involved came from my home town.”

When Colin Howell confessed to the murders and Hazel Stewart was arrested hours later on January 29, 2009, Deric broke the story the next morning.

“I would normally pass it on for some of the boys in the [Press Association] office to do and I worked at it all day on the Friday and it just got better and better.

“And I remember going to the cinema on the Friday night with my wife Claire to see Frost/Nixon. And we were watching the film and I said to my wife: “I think there is a book in this.

“So went and had dinner on the Lisburn Road and again I said “there’s a book here”.

“The following day, my son Deric jnr, two good friends, Hugh Jordan out of The Sunday World and another guy, Ciaran Temple, were going to Dublin for a match, Tyrone were playing Dublin in a National League game which marked the 125th anniversary of the GAA.

“I started to make a few inquiries and began to work on it a bit. Getting a publisher wasn’t a problem. Without doubt, it’s the best story I’ve ever done.”

Deric has carried out extensive background research into the family and friends of the Howells and Buchanans, those who gave witness statements, the police investigation and clergy to shed what promises to be a fascinating new light on the explosive case.

He says: “I’m very mindful of the tragedy involved here. You are talking about two really good families - the Buchanans on one side, who lost their son and the Clarke family, even though there’s not many of them left.

“Their daughter Lesley was a vivacious girl, full of life and energy, a wonderful mother to their four children, bright, intelligent and really engaging who was basically left an emotional wreck by the time she died.

“Colin Howell was a dentist who was a sociopath and who lived in a world that you or I couldn’t imagine. And he had an affair with a girl called Hazel Buchanan who comes from a very well known Omagh family - the Clarke family, outside Omagh.

“She was basically swept off her feet by this guy. I would not exactly have said he was charismatic but she wouldn’t have been too hard to impress.

“You have all the ingredients of an unbelievable story: “You have sex, you have drugs, you have lust, you have greed, you have religion, you have intrigue, romance, passion and you have murder most foul. People who have been murdered in a most unbelievable way. It’s all there.

“There is a voracious appetite for the story and that’s why it’s such a fascinating case.

“It’s a Northern Ireland story, set in the north coast but if it was in the Shires in England the Daily Mail would be all over it like a rash. It’s just one of those unbelievable stories.

“There’s not a day passes that I don’t ask myself: ‘Is this really true? Is this what really happened here? Because this is the most amazing story that I have ever done.

“There’s so many revelations to come out, there’s so much stuff to come out. You could maybe say that this a thriller, but what I wanted to write was a full and factual account of what happened. There will be parts of it that will be fiction - there will be no doubt about that.

“The more you research the more avenues that are open to you. It has consumed me,” said Deric, who began his painstaking research in February 2009.

“It’s not just about the murder. You have Howell the dentist, you’ve got Howell the Baptist, you’ve got Howell the businessman, you have Howell who had a very dark side to him.

“Then you have his wife Lesley who was left an absolute wreck.

“Then, on the other side, you had Trevor Buchanan, who by all accounts was an absolute star. A lovely fella, totally devoted to his family and to her and to especially his children. He came from a very good family down in Tyrone.

“I have spent a lot of time with them and they are in a very highly fragile state. It’s seeing their brother die all over again only it’s worse this time.

“People out there have a fascination of what went on in the dentist’s chair. I have spoken to quite a few dentists down here and it has had a massive impact.

“People get the impression that Howell was some sort of [Harold] Shipman - he wasn’t.

“There were things happening in his house and things happening in her house and it makes for very uncomfortable reading.

“Lesley went through and awful time. It was always a marriage that was doomed. It was never, ever going to work out,

There was lies and deceit and then ultimately Colin Howell’s whole life implodes around Christmas 2008.

“I never wanted to write a book but when it came to this it was different. It’s like finding a Penny Black or something immensely valuable turning up in your attic.

“It was the perfect murder - a very bizarre case. Never through my own experience have I seen anything remotely like it.”