Coleraine Times editor David Rankin reveals for the first time the explosive findings of consultant psychiatrist Dr Helen Harbinson, who interviewed double killer Colin Howell over a period of a year in Maghaberry Prison
The 57-year-old former dentist heard voices in his head and believed God was punishing him for killing his wife Lesley and policeman Trevor Buchanan in 1991 and making their deaths look like a bizarre suicide pact.
After being charged with their murders in 2009, as well as a number of indecent assaults of female patients in his Ballymoney dental practice, Howell had a psychotic meltdown during his early days at Maghaberry Prison.
He suffered a series of terrifying delusions, was deeply paranoid that he was being watched by a “system” controlled by God and was haunted he would suffer a brutal death at the hands of a violent knife-wielding sect.
In a report in this week’s Coleraine Times, the newspaper has revealed for the first time the findings of a series of psychiatric reports carried out on the father of nine while he was in prison by Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Helen Harbinson.
Dr Harbinson had been instructed by Howell’s solicitors Trevor Smyth and Co in Belfast, to examine Howell’s mental state and assess his fitness for further police interviews in May 2009.
Over a year she carried out six interviews, initially encountering a broken, incoherent man, who was tormented by his sins and who was unable to escape from a dream world occupied by demons and conspirators.
Interviewing the killer in the prison hospital’s psychiatric ward for the first time, Dr Harbinson wrote: “He describes vivid dreams of ‘destruction, hell and demons’.
“He is ‘tormented’ during the day. He believes that ‘everything has a meaning’. The meaning relates to his destruction. He is selfish, egocentric and lazy. He believes ‘my whole life has been on television’. He described a film called the Truman Show staring Jim Carey. The chief character in this film was on television from his birth onwards, but did not discover this until his mid forties.
“He was the only one who did not know he was on TV. Mr Howell believes his life is like that. He did not realise it until he came into prison. He believes his whole life has been scrutinised. He went on to say he struggles with denial and reality.”
Prescribed the antipsychotic drug Chlorpromazine and the antidepressant Paroxetine by the prison’s Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Ian Bownes, Howell spoke hesitantly and slowly throughout the interview but made it clear who he believed was ‘scrutinising him’ - God.
Dr Harbinson reported: “God’s attitude towards him is one of destruction and that will not change.
“His future is not good. He believes God is in control and ‘He has chosen to destroy me’. He thinks that this will take the form of some sort of ‘ritualistic event’. He believes that he will be attacked by people using knives or swords, or he will be burned. This will be done by warriors from a sect or group. He said he cannot go beyond what he has read or seen on television. The ritual will be of the sort engaged in by the Romans, Spartans or Aztecs.”
Howell rejected any suggestion that he would kill himself in prison: “He said it was not in God’s plan for him and even if he tried it wouldn’t work. He believes that torment is God’s plan for him. He told me there is ‘a whole System’ geared against him.
“He said it is hard to describe this System, it is unreal and yet most of the time it is happening. He said ‘It’s as if I’m the focal point of everyone’s future, my destruction is part of that future.’ By everyone, he meant everyone in the world.
“He said everyone thinks that his destruction will save the world but he knows it won’t. He is intimidated and controlled by others and that too is part of God’s plan. The fact that he has been given medication against his will is part of that plan.
“He wonders if Satan controls his mind, or if he can control it himself. Perhaps it is aspects of both. He would describe his mood as more ‘oppressed’ than depressed. He is on antidepressant medication ‘but he believes nothing can fix it’.”
The psychiatrist asked him to give her an example of his paranoid state.
“He told me that recently he got up early in the morning. He felt he ought to clean the ward bathroom. He stopped because he had a bad feeling about doing it. One of the prisoners told him he had disturbed a dragon’s den. He decided he could not clean anymore. He believes this prisoner is right.
“It is all connected with his dreams of demons and torments.
“He believes he is harming others every day because he cannot relinquish control. He believes the System is harming his children in some way.
“I asked if he believed that he deserved to be tormented. He said: ‘There should be a limiting factor. This punishment may not have a limiting factor.’ I asked what he deserved to be punished for. He replied ‘I had a purpose and calling. That would have prevented billions of people from being destroyed.’
“I asked him to explain what he meant. He told me he was not sure whether he was like Noah who rescued a small number of people, or Moses who rescued a whole nation. I asked if he believed he deserved to be punished for killing his first wife. He said ‘I didn’t go back that far’, paused, then said, ‘and the other guy, Trevor’.
“He said: ‘I include the two murders in the billions, it’s all wrapped up in the one.’ He believes the System will set him up. He is not sure whether he has been set up already or not. He would not know, as information he gets is controlled. God is behind this System.”
On direct questioning Howell admitted to hearing a voice inside his head and that of his late wife Lesley.
“He told me at present he is spending a lot of time in bed ‘hiding but not hiding’. He said ‘You can’t hide from your thoughts.’ He does not talk to staff or prisoners.”
In her assessment, Dr Harbinson concluded: “Mr Howell has a psychotic illness. He has depressive, religious, grandiose and persecutory delusions.
“He believes that he is being controlled by a ‘System’ and that he will be killed in a ritualistic fashion. This, he states, is because he was called to save others in the way that Moses and Noah did, but he has not fulfilled his calling. He is suffering from insomnia. He has lost his appetite and weight. His speech is retarded. He has difficulty with his concentration and memory.
“Mr Howell is not in my opinion fit for interview by the police, nor is he fit to give instructions to his defence.”
She recommended that a review of his mental state be carried out within three or four weeks.
l Colin Howell and his then lover Hazel Buchanan (now Stewart) murdered their spouses in 1991.
The pair managed to keep the killings – deemed a double suicide at the time – a secret for almost two decades before Howell handed himself in to police in 2009.
They are currently serving life sentences for the murders, Howell a minimum 21-year term and Stewart a minimum of 18 years.