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Investigation into 1991 deaths "deeply flawed" and failed families, says NI police watchdog

Police missed crucial evidence and assumed Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell died by suicide, according to Police Ombudsman’s report.

Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland Al Hutchinson.
Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland Al Hutchinson.
Image: Paul Faith/PA Wire

AN INQUIRY INTO the police investigation into the deaths of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell in 1991 has found it was deeply flawed, lacked objectivity and failed the families of both victims.

The bodies of Buchanan and Howell were found in a fume-filled car and their deaths were initially treated as a double suicide. However, it transpired years later that they had been murdered by their spouses who were lovers.

Howell’s husband Colin Howell confessed to the killings in 2009, prompting the PSNI to reopen the investigation. Howell and Buchanan’s widow Hazel Stewart have since been convicted of the two murders.

In an official report published this morning, Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson said that the original investigation missed significant opportunities by sticking with the assumption they had died in a suicide pact.

Hutchinson said that police had failed to fully explore the inconsistencies which began to emerge in the evidence and that they had accepted the accounts of the two who were later convicted of the murders “despite both having been shown to have lied to police”:

There was a very early assumption of suicide. I have seen little evidence that this assumption was subject to any test or challenge by the investigators.

He said that for almost two decades the family and friends of the deceased were left thinking that they had chosen to take their own lives and that they “may never have had to live through this pain had the police conducted a thorough, searching investigation” at the time of the deaths.

The ombudsman also pointed out some of the things which should have aroused more suspicion among investigators at the time the bodies were discovered, including the fact that one of the car doors was open and the driver’s window was fully open. The car had not been forensically examined by police and many items found at the scene were not fingerprinted:

The police did not maximise all the potential forensic opportunities in the garage nor fully investigate the inconsistencies which faced them. This would indicate that from an early stage they accepted the suicide theory and showed an investigative bias which was to pervade the investigation which followed

The PSNI responded to Hutchinson’s report saying it “accepts the findings of the Ombudsman’s report” and apologising to the victims’ families:

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.
Earlier this year, Stewart was sentenced to serve a minimum of 18 years in prison for the double murders, while Howell was sentenced a year ago to serve 21 years minimum.

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