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.
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.