Six years after Stephen Port’s 16-month killing spree was brought to an end, the inquests into his victims’ deaths have begun – with the “competence and adequacy” of the police response now under the spotlight.
Opening the long-awaited inquests on Tuesday, Coroner Sarah Munro QC said responsibility for the murders “ultimately rests with one man only – Stephen Port”, a 46-year-old who targeted his victims using dating apps like Grindr and plied them with the sedative GHB before dumping their bodies near his flat in Barking.
Port targeted at least 11 men in total, and was handed a whole-life order in 2016 after being found guilty of murdering Jack Taylor, 25, Anthony Walgate, 23, Gabriel Kovari, 22, and Daniel Whitworth, 21, between June 2014 and September 2015.
But unlike Port's criminal trial, the inquests – which will run for up to 10 weeks at Barking Town Hall – will examine whether “the lives of those who died later might have been saved” if police had acted differently, the coroner said, telling jurors they would consider whether “mistakes were made” that delayed Port being brought to justice.
The function of the inquests is not to attribute criminal or civil liability but to make findings and reach conclusions about the four deaths, the coroner said. She told the jury to “beware the wisdom of hindsight” when considering what the police knew at the time of each of the deaths.
On the inquest’s first day, bereaved family members gave statements paying tribute to their lost loved ones, while the coroner outlined the facts surrounding their murders.
Jurors heard how Port’s first victim, 23-year-old student Anthony Walgate, had been a quiet and shy child while growing up in Hull, but turned from a “cygnet to a swan” after setting out to make his name in the fashion world in London.
His mother Sarah Sak shared fond anecdotes, including how he once put a tiny tooth in his ear and needed an operation to remove it, and described having “begged him not to go” to London and “to stay in Yorkshire somewhere local”.
“He replied that he would be famous one day with his name in lights, he loved fashion and it was the only place to achieve this,” she said, adding that they “would speak at least three times a week” on the phone.
The fashion student was found dead in Cooke Street on 19 June, and it was decided that the local police team should lead the investigation into his death, rather than the Met’s specialist homicide command, the court heard.
Investigators quickly established it was Stephen Port who had called an ambulance for Walgate, but when questioned he lied to police and gave no indication that he knew him. It was a week later before they realised that Port, using the name Joe Dean, had in fact arranged to meet Walgate, who was working as an escort at the time.
A special post-mortem examination could not establish the cause of death and it was another two months before it emerged he had died from a GHB overdose.
Port was prosecuted for perverting the cause of justice over the lies he had told police and jailed in March 2015, but by that time he had already killed his next two victims Gabriel Kovari and Daniel Whitworth, the jury was told.
Slovakian university graduate Gabriel Kovari was just 22 when he was drugged with GHB and dumped in St Margaret's churchyard, just 250 metres away from where Tuesday’s proceedings were held.
At the time, Kovari’s death was treated as “unexplained” but not suspicious, and toxicology tests found he had GHB in his system.
Adam Kovari described his brother as a “very smart, talented, kind person with a passion for drawing and languages”, who “wrote lots of poetry and illustrated it with beautiful drawings”, adding: “He was the most talented of all of us in the family when it came to artistic expression.”
"My brother was an exceptional and ambitious young man that I am sure would be leading an amazing life today, if he had a chance,” Adam said. “He make a mistake of trusting people too much. This cost him life, but it should not have done.
“In my opinion, had the police done their job my brother could still be here with us today.”
When 21-year-old Whitworth’s body was found within the same three-week period, also in St Margaret’s churchyard, he was holding what appeared to be a “suicide note” in his left hand, which purported to show he was responsible for Kovari’s death in an “accident”.
Ms Munro said the note was a lie, written by Port in an attempt to “cover up” the death, but that only became clear “much later”.
His grandmother Barbara Whitworth told the inquest that her grandson, an “ambitious lad who really loved his work” as a chef, “was a total joy from being a cheeky, mischievous child to a caring loving adult”, describing him as “my pride and joy”.
“He had his whole life in front of him and it seems so unfair that he was taken from us at such a young age,” she said. “To add to the misery of his loss, to then live with the ‘fact’ he had taken his own life was more than I could bear, history was repeating itself, or so it seemed, as I have already lost one of my own sons to suicide.”
Whitworth’s partner Ricky Waumsley told the inquest: “He was just literally my world and the only person at the time I really cared for.”
Jack Taylor, a 25-year-old forklift truck driver from Dagenham, had wanted to become a police officer before he became Port’s final victim, his sister Donna told the inquest.
She said the family would “never stop fighting for our Jack”, who was the “heart and soul of our family” and “always lit up a room with his warm nature”.
His other sister, Jenny, said: “Our whole world's been shattered into pieces, our family has a big hole missing and we are all so broken without him. We love him so very much, we always have and we always will.”
Additional reporting by PA