A former Sunday school teacher who murdered her policeman husband and her ex-lover's wife and then covered it up as a double suicide was jailed for a minimum of 18 years today.
Hazel Stewart (aged 48) from Ballystrone Road, Coleraine, Northern Ireland, had already been sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of plotting with dentist Colin Howell to poison his wife Lesley (aged 31), and her own husband, Pc Trevor Buchanan (aged 32), in 1991.
With 52-year-old Howell already serving 21 years after pleading guilty to the crimes last year, Judge Mr Justice Anthony Hart, at Belfast Crown Court, imposed the term his former mistress must spend behind bars before being considered for release.
Mr Hart said: "By its verdict in this case, the jury has accepted that Stewart and Howell 'were in it together', and her part in the dreadful events of the night which saw the murder of her husband and of Lesley Howell was not just that of a passive onlooker, but as an active participant, albeit to a lesser extent than Howell."
Pc Buchanan and Mrs Howell were found in a fume-filled garage in the seaside town of Castlerock, Co Derry, in May 1991.
Police thought they had died in a bizarre suicide pact until 18 years later when lay preacher Howell, apparently wracked by his guilty conscience, confessed to elders in his church that he had murdered them and stage-managed the scene to look like they had taken their own lives.
The dentist gassed his wife as she slept in their Coleraine home with carbon monoxide fumes piped from his car before dumping her body in the boot of the vehicle and driving the 10-minute journey to the Buchanan home to do the same to the sleeping policeman.
He then took his two victims to nearby Castlerock where he left the car in the garage of his wife's late father and turned on the engine.
The jurors in Stewart's 15-day trial at Coleraine Crown Court unanimously accepted that she knew about the plan in advance and, in the case of her husband, actively facilitated his killing by ensuring he was drugged and allowing Howell into her home.
They found the mother of two guilty on two counts of murder.
Stewart gave no reaction as the verdict was delivered.
Her daughter Lisa pressed her hands against the glass of the public gallery as her mother was led from the dock down to the cells.
At the outset of the hearing the judge said he accepted that Stewart played a secondary role and that Howell planned and carried out the murders.
“Nevertheless, her responsibility for what happened was very substantial, and the minimum term must reflect that,” he said.
Mr Hart noted that Howell had received credit for pleading guilty – he would have received 28 years if he had not – and stressed that the crimes would never have been uncovered if the dentist had not confessed.
“Hazel Stewart cannot claim any such reduction in the minimum term to be imposed in her case because she pleaded not guilty.”
He also said Stewart had shown little real remorse for what she did and claimed her expressions of regret to police after her arrest in January 2009 were more about the situation she faced than sorrow for what she did.
“It is noteworthy that throughout her police interviews she said far more about the effect of these events on herself, her children and her present husband than she did about the effects of the murders on all the others whose lives have been ended and blighted by these events,” he said.
“I consider that she has expressed little real remorse for what she did, rather the sorrow and regret which she expressed to the police was largely because of the situation in which she found herself, and not for the events in which she played her part.”
The judge said he had considered “dignified and moving” victim impact statements from relatives of both Pc Buchanan and Mrs Howell when setting the term.
He also said he had taken into account statements from Stewart‘s two children, Andrew and Lisa, and her second husband David, pleading for leniency, but that he could not attribute substantial weight to them in balance against the aggravating factors in the case.
“Taking all the factors to which I referred into account, I consider that the minimum term that Stewart should serve before she can be considered for release is one of 18 years imprisonment.”