The names Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor will not be familiar to most but they represent one of the most damning cases of Metropolitan police incompetence in living memory. On Friday, a jury at Barking Town Hall found that officers’ failure to properly investigate Anthony’s murder contributed to the subsequent murders of Gabriel, Daniel and Jack. While the men and women tasked by the coroner with weighing up nine weeks of evidence in the inquest accepted that police were burdened with a ‘heavy workload’, they concluded there were ‘fundamental failings in these investigations from the beginning’ which ‘cannot be overlooked’.
It would be impossible to overlook the failings considering how many there were, the egregiousness of their nature, and how they allowed a serial killer to get away with murder again and again. That killer was Stephen Port, variously branded the ‘Grindr killer’ and the ‘chemsex killer’ for his modus operandi of meeting young men on gay hook-up sites, giving them GHB and raping and murdering them. Anthony Walgate, who was killed in June 2014, was Port’s first victim and his death gave rise to some of the most inexplicable decisions taken by Barking and Dagenham borough police.
After murdering Anthony, Port dumped the body outside his own flat on Barking’s Cooke Street then called the emergency services claiming to have discovered the corpse. Anthony’s body showed signs of physical trauma (blood and bruising) but police accepted Port’s version of events and treated the death as an overdose. Then they found out that Anthony had agreed to hook up with Port on the night of his death and brought Port back in for questioning. This time he admitted to having met the 23-year-old and said he died after taking GHB in the Cooke Street flat. Port maintained he had dumped the body outside for fear of being wrongly implicated in the death. Detectives accepted his new alibi and charged him only with perverting the course of justice, for which he served a short custodial sentence. Anthony’s family asked why, if his death was accidental, his phone was missing and also pressed detectives to forensically examine both his and Port’s laptops. They were told it would cost too much.
Two months later, the body of 22-year-old Gabriel Kovari was found propped against a wall of St Margaret’s churchyard in Barking, a few hundred metres from Cooke Street. The following month, the body of 21-year-old Daniel Whitworth was found propped against a wall of St Margaret’s churchyard in Barking, a few hundred metres from Cooke Street. That’s not a typo. The two bodies were found dumped by the same wall of the same churchyard around the corner from the location of the first body and the residence of the man who reported it. The two young men were even posed in the same fashion and were discovered by the same elderly dog-walker.
Port fabricated a story about Gabriel returning to Slovakia and dying of an unknown disease. He also planted a forged suicide note on Daniel’s body detailing how he had witnessed Gabriel’s overdose and had been driven to take his own life out of guilt. The Met bought this, too, despite the Whitworth family’s uncertainty about the handwriting on the note and even after a coroner reported an open verdict. At that inquest, a detective confirmed that he failed to have the bedsheet Daniel’s body was dumped on tested for DNA evidence. In the meantime, John Pape, a friend of Gabriel, conducted his own enquiries and was able to link the three deaths but was dismissed when he took the evidence to police. Gay organisations making the same representations also got the brush-off. It meant that, among other failings, officers did not warn local gay men that a serial killer was targeting them.
That failing was only going to have one consequence and, in September 2015, the body of Jack Taylor, 25, was found beside the Abbey ruins in Barking. The ruins are adjacent to St Margaret’s parish church. Port planted a hypodermic needle on the body to divert the investigation, a rare example of a serial killer overestimating the police. Jack’s loved ones tried to explain to police that he was firmly opposed to the use of recreational drugs. Like the other families, they were given short shrift — until detectives budged on one point. CCTV cameras had caught Jack’s final hours and showed him with another man, whom the police said had walked off in another direction while Jack headed to the cemetery where his body would be found. The Taylors lobbied for the CCTV to be re-examined and, when it eventually was, it showed Jack and the unknown man walking towards the cemetery together. Following a public appeal, the man was identified as Stephen Port.
I wrote about this case for Coffee House four years ago. I was then and remain now astonished at the variety, scale and pervasiveness of the Met’s failings. A counter-constabulary, charged with preventing the investigation of crime, would have struggled to deliver the kind of results Barking and Dagenham police did here. One aspect brought to light by the inquest was that detectives in Barking requested that the Met’s major investigations unit take over the cases but were turned down. The failing, therefore, was not just that of a borough policing outfit but of senior officers at the Met. Stephen Port, now serving a whole-life sentence, could not have asked for a more accommodating police operation.
The families of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor believe institutional homophobia played a role. The inquest jury was not allowed to consider that, a decision that angered the families. They said: ‘Our position remains unchanged; based on the treatment we received, our firmly held belief is that the Metropolitan police’s actions were, in part, driven by homophobia. The approach of the Met on the issue of homophobia demonstrates to us that even today, seven years on, they have learned very little.’
It’s hard to imagine the murders of four married, thirty-something men in the same manner, in the same area of the same borough, dumped in less than 500 metres of each other, on the doorstep of a man repeatedly interviewed by police and even jailed for lying to them, would be treated in the same fashion. Anthony, Gabriel, Daniel and Jack were all guilty of the same crime: being murdered while gay.