Northern Ireland

Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan: police 'overlooked murder clues'

Two senior police officers who investigated the deaths of a man and woman in 1991 overlooked vital clues pointing to murder, a report suggests.

The police ombudsman's report says the original police investigation into the deaths of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell was "deeply flawed".

Both were killed by Ballymoney dentist, Colin Howell, and his then lover, Hazel Stewart.

But at the time, police concluded that the deaths were suicides.

The ombudsman said both families were failed by the initial investigation which was biased towards a suicide pact theory.

The original inquiry was re-examined after the families of Lesley Howell, 31, and Trevor Buchanan, 32, complained.

The case was reopened after Colin Howell confessed in 2009 that he had killed his wife, Lesley and his lover's husband, Trevor Buchanan.

Their bodies were discovered in a fume-filled car in a garage at Lesley's father's house in Castlerock, County Londonderry on 19 May 1991.

Howell and his former lover, Hazel Stewart, are currently both in jail, convicted of the double murders.

The ombudsman's report found there was bias from the beginning because 20 years ago, two senior police officers rigidly stuck to a suicide pact theory.

Image caption Colin Howell pleaded guilty to two murders

Forensic evidence was not gathered, injuries to Mr Buchanan's face were not documented and inconsistencies and lies told by Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart were not challenged, the report found.

It also found that key information given to the police by a witness - who said Howell was giving his wife medication, had financial troubles and had previously dropped a live electrical cable into her bath - was ignored.

It suggested that a "golden hour" was missed in maximising evidence at the garage in Castlerock, where the bodies were found in the fume-filled car.

It said no fingerprints were taken and key pieces of evidence were not forensically examined. These included a vacuum cleaner hose pipe attached to the car exhaust and a cassette player and photographs found near Lesley Howell's body.

The report said no scene log, sketches or measurements taken.

It added that "peculiarities" at the scene that suggested foul play were not fully investigated. Trevor Buchanan's leg was hanging out of the car door and the driver's window was open.

The awkward position of both bodies and the loose fit of the vacuum cleaner pipe should have been "light bulb' moments" the report said.

It also highlighted the fact that even though Howell and Stewart were caught lying about their affair, senior investigators accepted their stories and ignored concerns raised by one police officer who thought the deaths were suspicious.

Image caption Hazel Stewart was found guilty of both murders

The police ombudsman concluded that there was "a lack of open-mindedness" and "a clear absence of leadership".

"Both families were failed by an investigation that was deeply flawed," the report said.

In a statement, the PSNI said they accepted the findings of the report.

"Police would also wish to apologise again to the Buchanan and Howell families for the failures and shortcomings of the 1991 investigation.

"In addition, PSNI will conduct a review of its current procedures to ensure that sudden deaths are subject to thorough investigation," the statement said.

Meanwhile, the Buchanan and Howell families said they were deeply saddened and disturbed by the failures of the original investigation.

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