The Irish Doctor and the Perfect Murders

Dr Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart

Dr Colin Howell and co-murderer Hazel Stewart: Just your average, smiling wealthy monsters next door

For just under 20 years a successful dentist lived and worked in the beautiful, Northern Ireland County of Antrim. And nobody in the city of Belfast, nor the surrounding villages, nor out in the rolling hill countryside – and most certainly none of his many patients – had the slightest idea this nondescript medical professional, who smiled at them daily as he passed by, was haunted by the ghosts of two people he had murdered, back in May, 1991.

And who do you suppose were the victims of his carefully plotted, long-secret scheme? The scheme that had worked so well it completely fooled the Belfast police – considered one of the brightest groups of detectives in the world? Well, one of the dead was his wife, and the other was the husband of his secret girlfriend.

Lesley Howell & Trevor Buchanan

The murder victims, Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan

Yes, indeed.

Doctor Colin Howell, age 31 at the time, had managed to convince police and everyone else, that his wife Lesley, as well as a police officer named Trevor Buchanan, had committed double suicide in a car parked on a country road. In fact, the good doctor had used carbon monoxide poisoning from the car’s engine. He rigged a hose to the exhaust and left them to die in an odorless gas-filled car. And it was his own car.

“The actions of the dentist were calculated, callous, manipulative, evil and wholly without mercy for two defenseless victims, one of whom was his wife and the other the loving husband of his co-accused.” (Attorney for the Crown, Kieran Murphy)

Case records show that the dentist had phoned in a missing person report on May 19, 1991 to Belfast police, saying his wife had failed to return home. Within hours police found her body in the trunk of the family car, in the garage of a house her father had owned, out on the Londonderry coastline.

Investigators noted that pictures of her family were scattered around her, and she wore stereo earphones. It looked for all the world as though she was wracked by guilt of her own secret affair. (Which was never the case) The music on her stereo was religious.

Police officer Trevor Buchanan, who was himself married, was found slumped in the driver’s seat. Doctor Colin Powell had taken great care to set up the convincing suicide scene. It looked just like a set in a movie. At the coroner’s inquest, the doctor testified he was grief-stricken – but not that surprised – that his wife might take her own life. He said Lesley had been having a hard time coping with the recent death of her father-in-law. He said she was depressed and needed sleeping pills to get through the night. And although it did seem odd that Lesley’s body was found in the trunk of the car, law enforcement believed what they saw, took the doctor at his word and closed the case. The double murder had worked perfectly.

With both spouses now in the ground, the doctor and his partner in crime – the wife of the dead police officer, Hazel Stewart – went on their merry way for years. She even collected the monthly death benefits from her dead husband’s retirement. And the dentist raked in his dead wife’s $600,000 insurance payout. Life was good.

But almost 20 years after the murder, Howell couldn’t take the silent guilt anymore. So he walked into a police station and confessed. And when he admitted to the affair with officer Buchanan’s wife, they arrested her too. Howell was sent to prison for life. Hazel Stewart, is now 47. She was found guilty of being complicit in the murders in March 2011 and sentenced to a minimum term of 18 years.

Doctors killing their spouses is one of the most common of crimes, and it happens weekly all over the world. Sometimes they get caught. Sometimes they don’t. But this case is a rarity, because this one actually confessed.


Historical Hysterics: Did You Hear About the Doctor Who Robbed a Bank?

It was just over 10 years ago in a federal court when a lab coat loon who lived in Montana confessed that well, yeah, he really did rob that bank in Rexburg Idaho. But they had it all wrong about the homicide of his elderly patient. It wasn’t like he actually . . . you know . . . murdered her.

James DriscollIt seems that Doctor James Bischoff was arrested – that is, the first time – for injecting an elderly woman, Kathryn Dvarishkis, who was under his care at Madison Valley Hospital in Ennis, Montana, with narcotics to speed up her death. She was very ill and he was doing her a favor. That little pickle, which occurred back in the year 2000, was considered a major boo-boo by law enforcement.

Then, before the trial for the lady’s death was even over, and while he was out on bail, the daffy doc decided it would be a good idea to hold up the U.S. Bank branch in Rexburg. So he drove across state lines and did just that. That happened on March 16, 2005, when the doc walked into the bank armed with two handguns and wearing ski goggles and demanded serious cash.

A dorky physician in a bank with ski goggles and a gun in each fist. Now there’s a visual.

But it took a while before they figured out who the robber-doc really was. And during that time his trial continued – not only for the killing of his 85-year-old patient, but for illegally possessing and using the drugs in question. Eventually, in September, 2005, Bischoff confessed to the lesser crime of Negligent Homicide and 2 felony drug charges. The drug charges involved him fraudulently obtaining thousands of doses of prescription amphetamines for himself by using other people’s names.

Quite the patient care professional.

In the end, bad-boy Bischoff was sentenced in September, 2005 by District Judge Brent Moss, to a term of 5-20 years in prison for robbing a bank in Idaho, and 2 years for killing his patient.

Let’s say that again slowly. The prosecution recommended the death penalty for deliberately killing his patient. He got 2 years for killing a patient. Go figure.

At the sentencing when he was allowed to speak, Bischoff apologized for robbing the bank.

San Diego Paramedics’ First Life Saved? It Almost Didn’t Happen


Our first medic shoulder patch looked like this

By 1972 millions of federal dollars became available to counties that agreed to adopt the nationally acceptable EMS template. So in cities great and small, highly trained pairs of rescuers started popping up like dandelions on the landscape. But not so fast, Charlie Brown. Not in some cities and certainly not in our city. Not San Diego.

One of the largest cities in the nation, San Diego was a mere 90 miles down the freeway from Daniel Freeman, Harbor General and L.A.’s Emergency! television medics.  But our burgeoning border metropolis would wait nearly another decade for the level of street medical care enjoyed in Podunk, USA. And why would that be?


If you think San Diego’s most powerful doctors wanted something like this running around town, you don’t know your history. Doctors lobbied the City Council because they didn’t want to see ANY of this. They did all they could to stop it.

In ‘America’s Finest City’ the most vocal opponents of advanced rescue medicine were a handful of MDs who happened to hold pontificating sway over the City Council. Yes indeedy. These politically-bent MDs held a considerable level of contempt toward these “unproven, unnecessary, probably dangerous” rescue changes. San Diego had operated barren police ambulances for decades, and that was quite good enough, thank you. The last thing citizens needed – in the minds of these physicians – was a bunch of pretend-doctors running around in shiny trucks.



When evil struck a San Diego McDonald’s – the author was there. James Huberty shot 41 innocent people. Had the city’s politico-MDs gotten their way, there would have been no medics for this tragedy, either. Go figure.


So the years went by. Eventually, after nearly a decade of hearing little but a litany of negatives from some of the most respected physicians, the City Council decided to put its collective foot down and voted to approve San Diego’s first Paramedic program, to begin in February,1979. Of course a PSA airliner wiping out a neighborhood four months prior, did nothing to strengthen the contrarian physicians’ case. The Mayor – and future Governor – Pete Wilson, was pushing hard for a true EMS upgrade, and had it not been for his vision and persistence, San Diego might have waited another 10 years.

No need to look far for a training program: UCSD School of Medicine in La Jolla was, after all, smack in the middle of town, already generating qualified Paramedics for other, more enlightened cities. The highly-intensive curriculum was directed by Doctor Andrew Rauscher, under the School of Anesthesiology. It was overseen by Doctor Silvia Micik. It was managed by Gail Walraven, whose team of instructors were seriously dedicated, marvelous women, everyone: Ginger Murphy. Margie Nerney. Karen LeBlanc. Josie Harding. Marilyn Sheets, who came along just a bit later, should be included too.

Because it was so late in coming, we find it noteworthy to reference the first Paramedic-level EMS call in the city of San Diego, which occurred on February 2, 1979, at 8:19 in the morning. The emergency was what is known as a dissecting aortic aneurysm and there exists no condition more deadly. Had this gentleman collapsed the day before, he would have been picked up, loaded into a police van and carted away to die within the hour. But not on this day.


For those interested, an excellent overview of America’s EMS evolution

The rescue team – Medevac 2arrived within five minutes and performed a very sophisticated physical assessment of the poor man lying on the kitchen floor. They compared blood pressures on each arm in both sitting and supine positions – a technique likely unheard of by first-aiders who came before. They determined a 100% accurate diagnosis of critical internal bleeding. They placed their patient on high-flow oxygen and inserted two large IV lines, running fluid into the man as quickly as humanly possible. They interpreted his heart rhythm – sinus tachycardia with dangerous runs of premature ventricular contractions via a portable EKG monitor called the LifePak 5. They transported the patient slowly, smoothly – red lights but no ridiculous siren – to Mercy Hospital 3 miles up the street. He was admitted directly to surgery and he lived to tell his grand kids all about his nearly lethal adventure.

San Diego City EMS Case #79-00001 went down in medical history. It did. Mr. Ivan Kosygin, a 66- year-old Ukrainian emigrant – lived 18 more years. The Mobile Intensive Care nurse on the hospital end of the radio that morning was Diana Hunt, with her marvelous British accent. The ER physician of record was Thomas Kravis. The rescuers? Cyndi Stankowski, one of the first women Paramedics in the nation, fresh out of school.

And your author.

Have a happy and relaxed Easter Sunday, readers. And thank you for your ever-growing interest in subjects that we believe truly matter. Perhaps someday one of our scribbled bits of wisdom will save a loved one.

Historical Hysterics: is Anybody on This Earth Stranger than Doctors?

 “Here lies the decayed Girolamo Segato, who could have been totally petrified, if his art had not died with him.” (The strange Doctor Segato’s epitaph)


The strange Doctor Girolamo Segato

To our own personal amazement, the Human race has always shown a peculiar tendency to spawn a wide swath of eccentric characters. And there is ample evidence that no other segment of our homo sapien population has exhibited a stranger collection of freakish people than doctors.

Consider the case of the very odd Doctor Girolamo Segato, who was born in a Catholic monastery in northern Italy, on June 13th, 1792. As he grew into adulthood, this fellow became resolutely focused – not on religion, mind you – but on the methods and the chemicals that could keep dead bodies from decomposing. So at age 26, he traveled to Egypt and studied their mummies.

The man was mesmerized by the art and science of “petrifaction” and did indeed eventually discover a particular procedure – apparently unknown to anyone else on earth – which allowed him to obtain amazing results – far beyond anything the Egyptians ever created. Back home in Italy, Girolamo Segato would gather bodies secretly, without the families knowing, from hospitals and grave diggers. And then, with nary a neighbor the wiser, he set about the midnight business of turning people into stone. Take a look:


A display of Segato’s petrified human body parts can be seen at the Anatomical Museum of the University of Florence, including a woman’s head, breasts and even a table with inlaid designs made of mummified human tissue.  


What look like polished stones in the table are, in fact, human organs – preserved, cut into geometric shapes and designed into a colorful mosaic.


The female head has been studied by modern exams, such as CT scans and x-rays. A 1” hole in the side of the skull is easily seen, proving that Segato did in fact inject something. And although nobody knows what it was, the liquid did extend into even the smallest of blood vessels throughout the body. In order to do this, the blood could not have been coagulated. Which means the head needed to be injected almost immediately after death.


Like doctors the world over, Segato preferred playing with lady parts

Recent studies have disclosed little-known contacts between Segato and American doctors, who were extremely interested in his work. But Segato had destroyed all of his laboratory notes, and his sudden death on February 2, 1836, prevented the world from ever learning his secret methods of turning human bodies into stone.

(We are indebted to the staff of the Universita Degli Studi Firenze, Italy)

Historical Hysterics? No Time to Brag: Someday They’ll Look Back at us, too

Someday, our heirs in the distant future will look back at America’s “healthcare” insanities of the year 2016. They just might wonder why the citizenry thought popping pills that killed a 1,000 of us per week, was a bright idea. They just might suspect we were . . . appallingly stupid, back in the day we know as today.

In ancient Greece the wisest of healthcare males were able to convince the populace that many of the ailments of women-folk were caused by – now you may want to hold your ponies here – “The Wandering Womb” affliction. Oh yes, they did.


So by all means believe everything your doctors say. They’re smarter than you are.

Of course at the time, nearly all respected doctors were males and women – well, they were neither. So who could possibly know more about the female condition than a bunch of horny men?

So the lab-coated males convinced the lesser-educated females of the time that their illnesses were cause by internal emotional factors – loneliness and frustration. Why might a woman be lonely and frustrated? Well, because her uterus had broken free from its pelvic ties, you see, and began a long, slow, sad, meandering journey up towards the lady’s head.


So ladies, here’s your question of the week: Do you know where your womb has wandered?

Now, many of us already know that Plato was perhaps the smartest dude of his era. What did Plato the Genius think about this female medical condition? He expounded that the wandering uterus was in fact “an animal living inside a female animal.” Aretaeus of Cappadocia was perhaps the most famous doctor of the day. In one of his many writings, he said this:

“The womb moves hither and thither within the female flanks. It can move to the right or move to the left. The womb is altogether erratic.”

Hither and thither. We like that. What a cute way to describe a woman’s internal organ vagabondism.

The wisest of men, back in the day, would all scratch their chins and nod in unison. For they recognized that a wandering uterus caused hysteria, which was often fatal. So my oh my, what might a doctor prescribe? What, pray tell, could possibly be the cure for nomadic nether regions?

Why, steamy sex was prescribed, that’s what.

So for no other reason – and we know there could be no other reason because they said so – than to rid Greek society of such a terrible scourge, behind closed doors, the most dedicated and caring of healthcare professionals – male doctors – stepped forward, lifted the reclining patient’s bare legs, and cured her of her wanderlusty womb.

And now you know.

 (Stay tuned next week, and we’ll tell you all about the renowned physician who solved mental illness by shoving ice picks into the eyeballs of his poor patients.)

Have a terrific weekend, readers.

10 Years Ago This Weekend: The Doctor Mark Wangler Murder Case

Dr Mark Wangler 2

The face of innocence? (photo by Jay David)

It was one decade ago, when yet another physician was charged for the death of a spouse:


Doctor Diane Scala Barnett, a forensic pathologist with the Lucas County Coroner’s Office in Toledo, took the stand for the prosecution. Doctor Barnett performed the autopsy on Kathy Wangler on Sept. 5, 2006, a day after the mother of two died from what was determined to be acute carbon monoxide intoxication. Testimony from other prosecution witnesses appearing in Allen County Common Pleas Court focused on a portable generator and other equipment as a possible source of the toxic gas.
Kathy Wangler

Kathy Wangler (center)


Doctor Barnett, who had performed more than 8,000 autopsies and had testified in numerous death cases, said she based her opinion on factors totally inconsistent with Wangler’s story of having found his wife on the bed alive. Her body temperature; lividity (pooling of the blood due to gravity); her rigor mortis (body stiffening generally is noticed about 2 hours after the heart stops) and an evaluation of stomach contents.


At last count, as of late February 2014, prisons in the United States were holding 209  physicians for spousal murder.


Mark Wangler was not the first MD convicted of spousal homicide – far, far from it. And since his “Guilty” sentence was read in Ohio, at least 11 other doctors have been imprisoned for the same crime.


Here’s a medical monster we once knew personally, in the early years of San Diego EMS:


Here’s another look at the fascinating Wangler case: