Two murderers hiding behind the saintly veneer of committed community members and active churchgoers.
That’s the enticing premise behind new miniseries The Secret, which tells the story of Colin Howell (played by James Nesbitt) and Hazel Buchanan (Genevieve O’Reilly), illicit lovers who killed their respective partners, Lesley and Trevor.
“Let this be our secret,” Howell wrote to Buchanan as they hatched their murderous scheme – the phrase that gives this story its name.
On May 19, 1991, the bodies of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan were found in a car filled with carbon monoxide – an apparent suicide pact. The Renault, left idling in a garage in the Northern Ireland town of Castlerock, held Lesley in the back seat and Trevor in the front.
She was wearing headphones and surrounded by photos of her children, while his door was ajar, as though he had had last-minute second thoughts. After a brief investigation, foul play was ruled out and life went on for the shell-shocked community of Coleraine, where they’d both lived.
But that was far from the end of the story.
Colin Howell was a local dentist in deeply religious Coleraine with four children: Matthew, Lauren, Daniel and Jonathan. The sometime preacher had been cheating on wife Lesley with a local Sunday school teacher – Hazel Buchanan – since he met her in 1990.
After the pair were spotted by a congregation member and confronted by Pastor John Hansford, they agreed to end things and seek counselling, but after four months the affair was back on. They would meet up for sex in places ranging from Howell’s dental chair (dosed up with laughing gas) to the home Buchanan shared with her husband, Trevor, a local policeman, and their two children.
Among the close-knit Baptist community, the affair was an open secret – one that both betrayed partners were aware of, even if they didn’t know about the secret abortion Buchanan had gone to London to have.
Howell claims that one night in bed, shortly after her beloved father had passed away, Lesley told him, “This is going to be over soon. I am going to go to heaven. Maybe you and Hazel are meant to be together. I’ll never get over this. Trevor will never get over this.”
That’s when he first began concocting his evil plan – a plan he managed to convince himself was actually doing the victims a favour. He could send them both to heaven, released from torment... and even their children would be happier. In Let This Be Our Secret, the true-crime book on which the series is based, author Deric Henderson says, “He felt in that moment that Lesley had actually given him permission to kill her: ‘It was a way out of this prison for her, the children and me.’”
It was a typical bit of mental gymnastics from a man who was a mass of contradictions. He banned magazines like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire from his waiting room on the grounds they were immoral, yet he “was addicted to pornography and abused patients, feeling them up while they were sedated,” reveals Henderson. “He would go to London and stand outside massage parlours wanting to go in. He’d call up members of his church to say he had the urge again. The Baptists tried to wean him off porn. His life was a mess.”
Howell’s crime may have been born of lust, but it wasn’t one of passion. Over the course of one night, he undertook a series of actions that must have required a significant amount of forethought, planning and engineering skill. Connecting a garden hose to his car’s exhaust pipe with half a baby’s bottle, he used this makeshift device to asphyxiate Lesley as she slept on the couch.
Trevor was harder to put down with the same method, even though he had been sedated with spiked tuna sandwiches by Buchanan before he went to bed. Howell overpowered the policeman, who was clad only in boxer shorts, and shoved the poisonous hosepipe down his throat. After the deed was done, he instructed his accomplice – who waited outside the bedroom while her husband was murdered – to burn the hosepipe, clean the bedsheets and get some of Trevor’s clothes ready.
Howell dressed both bodies, dumped them in the boot of his Renault, drove them 10km to Castlerock and arranged the scene meticulously to look like the pair had killed themselves out of humiliation at the love affair between their spouses.
Fortunately for Howell and Buchanan, local police reached this exact conclusion – mostly because of the connections both killers and victims had to the Coleraine Baptist Church, and that institution’s desperation to minimise scandal.
Inquiries were rushed, helped along by the fact Howell had planted an earlier suicide note Lesley had written for the police to find in their home.
In 2011, Gordon Buchanan, Trevor’s brother, told the BBC, “If we had the slightest notion there was any foul play we’d have been looking into it. At the time we were completely devastated when we were told this terrible news. Our family had a long association with the police and we had a high respect for them. We were being told, by people we respected entirely, and had no reason to doubt, that this was a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Having committed the perfect crime, the murderous lovers continued their relationship for another five years, only breaking up in 1996 after Buchanan refused to go along with Howell’s plan to get married and start over in Scotland.
A year later, in 1997, he met American divorcee Kyle Jorgensen at Bible study and won her heart. They wed soon after, and settled into a new life of church, family and community service with their combined families – which would eventually include another five children.
It wasn’t until two years later, at the kitchen table after dinner, when the kids had gone out to play, that Howell told Kyle what he had done to his first wife. Horrified, she told him to tell church elders, but he kept his confession to himself.
Although she claims she spoke to someone at the church shortly after learning of her husband’s secret – and was rebuffed with “I don't want to hear it. It’s before the Cross.” – for the most part Kyle also kept her mouth shut.
Things changed in 2009, 18 years after Lesley and Trevor were murdered. Howell’s son Matthew had recently died in a tragic staircase accident in Russia – he’d also lost a fortune in a financial scam involving Japanese gold and was deep in debt to the tax office. They were all signs, Howell believed, that God was punishing him for the crimes of the past.
At last, he decided to come clean before the Lord... and, after some urging on the part of church elders, he confessed to the police that he’d murdered his wife and his lover’s husband, and had also sexually assaulted female patients while they were sedated in his dental practice.
Much to Howell’s surprise, his second wife didn’t stand by him in the aftermath. Kyle filed for divorce, taking their five children back to the USA and telling The Mirror, “He abused patients, he is a compulsive liar, he was an adulterer in our marriage and murdered two people. Everyone thought he was this great Christian guy but they were so wrong. He was a monster.”
For her part, Buchanan (who’d remarried and was now known as Hazel Stewart) was implicated by Howell’s confession and arrested for her part in the killings. She claimed she had only gone along with the plan because she was terrified of her lover, but Howell told a different story in court.
“Hazel and I were waltzing together, in time,” he said. “All the side-stepping was done together. I was not dragging her around the floor. I may have been the lead partner in that dance but she was doing it in perfect harmony and willingly.”
Despite her protestations of innocence, Stewart was found guilty of murder by joint enterprise, and given a minimum sentence of 18 years. Howell was sentenced to a minimum terms of 21 years.
According to a guard at Maghaberry Prison, Howell is a big fan of the miniseries about his crime. “At the moment he’s loving this whole TV thing,” the guard told Belfast Live. “He’s been a little edgy. He lets on to be modest but we know him, we know exactly what he’s like.”
The Secret starts Wednesday, 7 September at 9:30pm (AEST) on SBS. The entire series is available on SBS On Demand.
Watch the first episode right here: