‘If the police had listened, Stephen Port’s other victims might still be alive’
An inquest has found that police failings probably contributed to deaths at the hands of the serial killer. The victims’ families speak out
Anthony Walgate was a young man who liked to dream big. Even as a schoolboy in Hull he had ambitions to start his own clothing label, to get rich and famous, and at the age of 23 he was on his way, with four years at fashion schools in London under his belt.
He had a mischievous sense of humour, delighting in making others laugh at the most inappropriate of times. He was a great skier, he was passionate about saving bees, and he was a first-rate gossip.
‘I spoke to him every other day,’ his mother Sarah Sak recalls. ‘He would ring me and say, “You’ll never guess what’s happened!” and then he would be on the phone for an hour at a time, telling me absolutely everything that was going on with him. He was having the time of his life.
‘He would drive me mad if I didn’t answer his calls. He used to text me and say, “Are you dead? Why aren’t you answering?” It was a standing joke that if I had something to tell him he would stop me and then talk about himself for ages.’
On 19 June, 2014, two days after his mother’s birthday, Anthony was found dead, propped up against a wall in Barking, east London, outside the home of a man who had dialled 999 to say he had come across Anthony there.
Paramedics who attended the scene suspected foul play. A post-mortem examination found lethal quantities of the anaesthetic gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) in his bloodstream. His phone was missing.
He had bruises under his arms, suggesting he had been moved. But police agreed with a preliminary medical examination that his death was ‘probably non-suspicious’.
‘I said from the very first day that he had been murdered,’ Sarah says, unable to suppress the anger in her voice. ‘They wouldn’t listen to anything we said. By the end of June the investigation had been shut down. I told them I would never shut up because I knew he had been murdered. If they had listened to any of us, the three other boys would still be alive.’
The ‘three other boys’ were Gabriel Kövári, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor, all of whom were found dead in similar circumstances, all propped up against the wall of a graveyard just 300 yards from where Anthony was found. All had been killed by the same drug.
The four men had little in common, other than the manner of their deaths. Gabriel, a 22-year-old graduate from Slovakia whose body was discovered two months after Anthony’s, was visiting London for the summer and was about to embark on a master’s degree in English back home. He loved to write poetry and spoke four languages.
Daniel, 21, found dead a month later, was a former grammar-school boy from Gravesend in Kent, pursuing a career as a chef.
One year on, Jack was found on the other side of the wall. The 25-year-old from Dagenham, who had once talked a stranger down from suicide, wanted to be a policeman and was in the process of switching from his job in a bonded warehouse. The similarities between their deaths were so striking that some family and friends concluded that a serial killer was at large.
The police, however, disagreed. Despite mounting evidence, officers assured the families that the deaths were not linked. A long-delayed inquest last month found that a litany of failures by the Metropolitan Police ‘probably’ contributed to the deaths of Gabriel, Daniel and Jack, though for their families there is no doubt at all that they would still be alive had the police done their job properly.
All four men had, after all, been victims of a serial killer: Stephen Port, the man who had ‘found’ Anthony and called for an ambulance.
Port had even been arrested for perverting the course of justice (he would later plead guilty) after it became clear Anthony had died in Port’s flat and Port had moved his body; he murdered Gabriel and Daniel while on bail. Jack was killed after Port had served a short prison sentence for the offence.
The list of errors and oversights is so extensive that the victims’ families believe the investigation was neglected because of the one thing that all four did have in common: all of them were gay.
‘We all think there is a vein of homophobia running through the Met,’ says Anthony’s father Thomas.
John Pape, a friend of Gabriel who pleaded with the police to treat the deaths as murder, put it more bluntly: ‘It seems as if the police just went, “Oh well, that’s what young gay men do: they take drugs and they die in graveyards.”’
It wasn’t homophobia alone, some of the families say. They think the police decided the young men were ‘druggies’ because they assumed they must have overdosed. Their lives were deemed less valuable as a result, some family members claim, and the effect was that officers failed to ask basic questions.
Adam Kövári, 32, can never forgive police for the fact that they simply did not seem to care about his younger brother Gabriel. Speaking via Zoom from his home in Brno, in the Czech Republic, tears fill his eyes as he says, ‘The police described him as this homeless guy, not even worth looking into. I would just like the police to know that this is not true.
‘I would like them to know that if they cared just a little bit they could have talked to us, we were there in London after he died, and we could have told them the truth and they could have saved other people.’
Incredible as it may seem, a family liaison officer assigned to the Köváris never got in touch with them. The first time any of the Barking and Dagenham borough officers investigating Gabriel’s death spoke to the family was when they called Adam to ask if Gabriel had already been buried, as they wanted to conduct further toxicology tests.
Each of the families can tell similar stories of police officers uninterested in asking difficult questions, keen to tick the box marked ‘case closed’, and devoid of care and empathy.
The tone was set from the first contact with the first victim’s family. Thomas Walgate tells how he was watching England take on Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup when a female police constable arrived at his home in Hull.
‘She told me, “Your brother Anthony has been found dead in London.” I told her I didn’t have a brother called Anthony, so I thought it must be a mistake and she’d come to the wrong person.
‘But then she said, “Oh, it must be your son then.”’
Thomas, who is separated from Anthony’s mother Sarah Sak, tried to call her but she was on holiday in Turkey and did not pick up. ‘I was ringing her phone every 10 minutes for about seven hours,’ he says, ‘because I was thinking, “He can’t be dead, he can’t be dead.”’
Sarah says, ‘When I picked up my phone and saw hundreds of missed calls from Anthony’s father, I just knew.’
Anthony was destined to become a two-dimensional character in media reports, victim number one of four, represented by the same picture of him in happier times, alongside images of the three other men with whom all he shared was his killer.
‘He was quite shy when he was younger,’ Sarah says. ‘To be honest he was painfully shy. He loved school but his teachers used to say he needed to speak up more in class.’
When he was 14 he developed an interest in fashion that quickly became the driving force in his life. ‘He was mad about clothes,’ Thomas remembers fondly. ‘Cost me a fortune!’ To his parents’ surprise, he announced one day that he had got an interview at Barnet College in London, which was taking place the very next day.
‘I wanted him to stay in Hull,’ Sarah says. ‘He wasn’t streetwise and he didn’t know a single person in London. But he got accepted straight away and when he went to London he changed massively, it was like he could just be himself. The cygnet turned into a swan.’
He completed the course and was in the second year of a three-year fashion degree at Middlesex University when he was killed.
Sarah knew her son was gay. ‘We were in the car one day and I just said to him, “Have you got a boyfriend then?”
‘He said, “I’m not talking to you about this!” and I just said, “I know you’re gay, I’ve always known,” and the only thing I was worried about was whether I would have grandkids or not. We didn’t really discuss it much after that. I just told him to be careful and he would go for HIV tests every six months and let me know he was OK.’
There was one secret, however, that he didn’t share with his mother. Like a growing number of students, he had begun working as an escort to earn some money. On 15 June, 2014, Stephen Port contacted him through the Sleepyboy escort website and offered to pay him £800 to stay the night with Port on 17 June.
Sarah says, ‘He told me one of his friends, a girl, was doing escort work and I said that was so dangerous, but he said, “It’s fine, she always tells us where she is going.” To me they were all daft kids, they all thought they were invincible and nothing bad would happen to them.’
Port, described by Anthony’s father as ‘a beast of a man’, was a 6ft 5in bus-depot chef who worked out at the gym and wore a blond toupee to cover his balding head. He drugged Anthony with a fatal dose of GHB before raping him and dumping his body, as he did with the other three victims.
After dialling 999 to say he had found Anthony ‘collapsed’, Port aroused suspicion by changing his story. He admitted they met for sex, and said that Anthony had collapsed and died in his flat, and that he had moved the body outside.
Police checked to see if he had previous convictions (he didn’t), but did not check an intelligence database on which they would have discovered that Port had been accused of assaulting another man two weeks earlier.
Ironically, the police did check Anthony’s name against the intelligence database, in what his family believe was another sign of the skewed attitude of detectives.
‘When they got the toxicology results I told them he wouldn’t take this stuff and his friends were all saying the same,’ says Sarah. ‘But instead they believed Stephen Port. They just dismissed it because they think that’s what gay people do.’
Their behaviour, she says, reminded her of the unreconstructed 1970s coppers in the TV series Life on Mars, rather than a professional 21st-century force.
Anthony’s father asked the police if they had gone through Port’s computer, but was told it would be ‘too expensive’. If they had done, they would have found he had persistently watched ‘drug rape’ pornography.
Thomas says that after Port was charged with perverting the course of justice having lied about the circumstances of Anthony’s death, ‘ just said Port would go to court and probably get four months, he would lose his job and lose his house, and that would be a good result. I thought, “My lad is dead and that is a good result?”
‘Then they contacted us and told us a second body had been found but not to worry because it wasn’t connected. Then the third body was found. You don’t have to be a sleuth to put this together, do you?’
The second body was Gabriel’s. He had been staying with John Pape but decided he should find somewhere else, and after meeting Port online became his flatmate.
Five days later, his body was found propped against the wall of the graveyard at St Margaret’s church, near Port’s flat in Cooke Street. His suitcase and possessions were next to him, but his phone was missing, just as Anthony’s had been. Police decided he was homeless and treated his death as unexplained, but not suspicious.
His brother Adam says, ‘He was always very well turned out, always looking perfect, because he really cared about his appearance. He had a suitcase full of expensive toiletries and clothes. How could they possibly assume he was homeless?’
Adam sips water constantly as he struggles to keep his emotions in check. ‘We used to spend time playing together with Lego and when we were older we would spend hours playing a strategy game our dad bought us…
‘When we were growing up we had bedrooms next to each other and at bedtime we would communicate by how many knocks we did on the wall. It was like our secret language. I think Gabriel liked inventing new languages and that was the first and most basic one. When he died he was working on his own language, made up of other languages, a bit like Esperanto.’
The police knew none of this, because the investigating officers didn’t bother to contact the family.
Three weeks after Gabriel’s death, Daniel Whitworth’s body was found just feet away from where Gabriel was found, posed in the same position. The two were even discovered by the same dog walker. Police found an apparent suicide note — unusually, contained in a plastic sleeve — on his person. Even more curious was the fact that he was found on a bed sheet.
The ‘suicide note’ said Daniel had accidentally killed Gabriel with GHB and had taken his own life out of guilt. In truth, the two had never met, and a simple check of their mobile-phone records would have shown they were not in the same place when Gabriel died, but police failed to look. Nor did they carry out DNA tests on the unexplained bed sheet found with Daniel, which would have led them to Port.
Instead they sent a poorly copied section of a small part of the note to Daniel’s parents, but neither the Whitworths nor Daniel’s boyfriend, Ricky Waumsley, could verify it was his writing.
It later transpired that a detective constable had recorded that the family had positively identified the handwriting as Daniel’s. Case closed.
When the family was shown the full note two weeks later, ‘there was nothing about it that spoke of Daniel’, his stepmother Amanda Whitworth says. ‘He didn’t mention us, or his grandma, or Ricky. We are a small family but he hadn’t mentioned anyone.’
It struck Amanda as deeply odd, but ‘as parents we were more worried about the contents; we were trying to work out if he had done this, why he had done this, our heads were a mess’.
The note, of course, had been written by Port, who had contacted Daniel through the gay dating app Grindr. Overwhelmed by grief and confusion, Daniel’s parents ‘became very insular, we were hermits, we steered well clear of the internet’, Amanda says. It meant they knew nothing of the growing disquiet among Daniel and Gabriel’s friends as they carried out their own research into the deaths.
‘We just lived with our doubts for a whole year,’ says Amanda. ‘We tried to heal ourselves, we sought out suicide groups, just trying to make sense of it all, but none of it made sense.’
Others reacted differently. Sarah Sak says, ‘When I found out about Daniel and Gabriel I rang the family liaison officer and said, “They’re literally next to each other,” and his exact words were, “They’re not connected. They’re nothing to do with each other. One was homeless and the other didn’t even live in the area.” He got quite annoyed actually.’
After Daniel was murdered, the bodies stopped turning up for a whole year. For part of that time, Port had been sent to prison for perverting the course of justice over Anthony’s death.
Then, on 13 September, 2015, Jack Taylor communicated with Port on Grindr and went to his flat. He was found dead by the wall of St Margaret’s graveyard the next day, but his death was classed as non-suspicious.
Port had planted a bottle with traces of GHB on Jack’s body, a trick he had also used with Anthony and Daniel. Still the police failed to make the connection.
Jack’s eldest sister Donna was on the phone to her parents, Jeannette and Colin, when the police arrived to give them the terrible news, and heard what happened next. ‘They came to the door and said, “Are you Jack Taylor’s mum and dad?” They said they were and the police officer said, “He’s dead.” It was as blunt as that. Mum just screamed.’
Despite the fact that Jack’s was the fourth body to be found in almost identical circumstances, his death was treated as unsuspicious. The family was not even assigned a family liaison officer as he was not regarded as a victim.
‘They asked about his sexuality right from the beginning and brushed it off as a druggie who had taken an overdose,’ says Donna, who is 12 years Jack’s senior. ‘They are discriminating against people in so many different ways.’
If a family liaison officer had been allocated to the Taylors, they might have discovered that Jack was not someone who was remotely likely to score drugs from a stranger and then overdose in a graveyard, as the police assumed.
Jenny Taylor, who is two years older than Jack, describes a typically ‘annoying little brother’ in childhood, who matured into a man who inspired everyone he met.
‘When he got to about 12 years old he joined the Army Cadets and from then on all he wanted to do was help people,’ she says. ‘He got a donor card, he became a blood donor, he started raising money for the British Heart Foundation and he set his heart on joining the Army or the police.’
When he died he had applied for a licence to work in security so he could work during the day and study to be a policeman at night.
Donna recalls the time Jack saw a man sitting on the wall of a railway bridge, and while others just walked past, talked to the man, put his belt around him to stop him jumping, and ultimately saved his life. ‘That was just Jack,’ Donna says. ‘He was just always thinking of other people.’ He even bought his mother flowers every week.
After being told of Jack’s death, his family heard nothing for 11 days. Donna and Jenny called the police to find out what was going on, and were appalled to be told that the answer was ‘not much at all’, Donna says. ‘They treated him like nothing, like they had found a dog on the street.’
Angered by the police response, they began their own investigation, using nothing more than a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection to make the links with the other deaths, and contacting Jack’s friends to work out who had been the last to see him alive. It became clear that Jack had met a person unknown before he died, and the sisters demanded the police find out who it was.
The police had found CCTV of Jack meeting a tall man outside Barking station, and told the sisters there was further footage of them going behind a phone box together, where Jack might have bought drugs from the stranger, and then of Jack heading towards the graveyard, where he had presumably taken the drugs and died.
In fact, as the sisters were later to be told, the CCTV showed nothing of the sort. There was no incident with a phone box, and no CCTV of Jack going into the graveyard; he had gone to Port’s flat, where he was murdered and raped. ‘They were just making up a story to fit what they thought had happened,’ says Jenny.
Officers eventually relented to pressure from the sisters to put out a public appeal for information, with an image of Jack next to the tall man he had met at the station.
According to the official version of events, Stephen Port was identified by one of the detectives who had originally worked on the Anthony Walgate case, who saw the appeal images on a colleague’s desk.
The sisters have their doubts about that, too. ‘We got a phone call from someone who worked with homeless people in Barking and they said they knew a man who helped out there who was very tall and his nickname was Lofty,’ Donna says. ‘We also found out that Jack was on a dating website called Badoo, and it turned out that man was also on it.’
Donna says she and Jenny passed the information on to the police and the next day Port was arrested.