Collecting Motives and How They Can Help Us Unravel Unsolved Murders

The cast of the ITV depiction did a fine job of this disturbing tale.

We are trying to hone down our method of looking at unsolved murders. Not that we are investigating them or web sleuthing. We want to get better at writing them up. In particular we want to look at unsolved murders and missing persons cases from a broader perspective. Colin Howell, a convicted UK murderer, provides a powerful lesson in motive. The more motives we study, we think, the more likely we can consider all possibilities when it comes to homicides without a solution.

Howell was a dentist in Northern Ireland. He was a regular, enthusiastic church attendee. He was a dentist and doing well. His wife, Leslie, and he had four children by the time he killed her in 1991. This is roughly what he did.

A lot of the events took place in Castlerock, Northern Ireland.

He had been having an extramarital affair with a woman called Hazell Buchanan.  They decided they wanted to be together. The problem was divorce was bad for the kids and would be an issue for the church. They decided that murder would be best though I have to say that murder is not good for kids and the church is not that happy with it either. Rationality does not seem to have featured prominently in their thinking. For a start their affair was already known. So following their logic later all that would be forgotten and life would have gone on swimmingly.

One aspect Howell and Mrs Buchanan did well was the method. Leslie Howell and Trevor Buchanan died on 18th/19th May 1991. They were found in a garage, in a car and it was believed they had taken their own lives. The story went that they knew of the affair and the mental anguish had pushed them into a suicide pact. Police officer, Mr Buchanan, died after his wife allowed Colin Howell to rig up a hose to a car exhaust. He had been sedated and the hose was run through the house so he inhaled the deadly gas from the running engine. A short time before Colin Howell had done the same thing to his wife Leslie.

The cast of the ITV depiction. The Secret, did a fine job of this disturbing tale.

He then drove to Leslie Howell’s deceased father’s house, arranged them both in the car, rigged up the hose to the exhaust and went home. Cops later found that Hazel had assisted him fully. They did cover their tracks well. At least there could be found no proof to shake their story. They stayed together for about four years after the murders, but broke up and subsequently married other people.

The details of how the murder worked out are well written up. The ending was not so good for either of the murderous duo. After 18 years Howell’s life unravelled and he confessed. He was not just a killer. He had also sedated and sexually assaulted dental patients. Nice guy. As for Hazel? She had married man called Stewart and found herself in the dock because of Howell’s confession. She roundly denies willing participation. She says he was a manipulator and she was in fear for her life. The courts disagree. Both are still in prison.

A Motive Worth Remembering

You could say that this motive is as old as sexual indiscretion. You would be right, but what drove it to that extreme? I mean this was a complex plan. Howell is said to have got a lot of money from insurance pay outs. So that could have been the motive. I am not sure about the payments received by Hazel. There would have been a police pension and some benefits I guess. However, Howell was a dentist. There are only poor dentists in the UK if they really try hard to be poor. So was it all about lust and money?

From what I can tell it was another type of greed that drove Howell and Stewart. They wanted the community life they had before. They wanted the children that they might have lost in an acrimonious divorce, they wanted to stay in Northern Ireland ( which had its own more strict social view of infidelity and divorce). They wanted control of their lives and had a deluded view that if only the two victims were gone all would be well. It was deluded because the affair was commonly known. That and the suicide would have always hung over them.

In short I suggest that the motive here was totally irrational. The ‘suicide’ of their spouses led to social turmoil. It led to a fracture in their relationship, misery for the children and ultimately imprisonment. The point I am exploring is how often do we miss a true motive in unsolved murders because we approach them using a rational mind?

Not only would I have underestimated the social pressure the killers were operating under, but I would not have seen the practical lengths people would go to to get away with it. I understand cruelty, I don’t underestimate that mind set. As an outsider to this situation I would not have grasped just how far, physically, these people would go. Leslie Howell was gassed and placed in the car. Howell then drove to the Buchanan home and repeated the process. He then drove them to the empty garage at his father-in-law’s home. Once there he moved them around and rigged the car. He then, according to the depiction in the TV series, jogged a bit and then cycled home. That is was a massively risky workout. It was like an episode of Columbo.

I don’t know how you look at unsolved crimes, but we are almost obsessed with looking at any possibility that would explain why a victim died. In doing that we believe that it is more likely that an offender will be identified. I know we are not alone in this view. For all the police are often criticised, often painted as bumbling fools, many are of the view that you need to look at all aspects. Many try hard to get the right person in the dock. The same can be said for some writers and commentators. Howell and Stewart are good examples to remember when it comes to motive. They illustrate that it isn’t always about money, not always about lust. Sometimes those motivating factors are mixed with deluded future hopes and a belief that social comfort is worth killing for.


John T 

This case is well documented. I cannot attest to the detailed accuracy of all that happen in the ITV series called The Secret. I have had a brief look and the core facts of the case are present and the emotional aspects are excellently portrayed. Have a look if this story interests you.