Stephen Port: Police investigation failings 'probably' contributed to more deaths

Families say their concerns were dismissed by officers and some are now suing the Metropolitan Police, as ITV News Correspondent Sejal Karia reports

The families of serial killer Stephen Port's victims condemned the police investigation into their deaths as "one of the most widespread institutional failures in modern history" after inquests concluded officers' mishandling of the case "probably" contributed to the deaths of three young gay men who died in almost identical circumstances in Barking, east London.

Jurors returned a conclusion that Port's first victim, Anthony Walgate, a 23-year-old fashion student who did occasional escort work, was unlawfully killed in June 2014.

Subsequently, police failings "probably" contributed to the death of Gabriel Kovari, a 22-year-old Slovakian national, in August 2014; Port's third victim Daniel Whitworth, who was killed in September 2014; and Jack Taylor, who died a year later, jurors found.

Loved ones of the four men have accused the Met of homophobia in the way that it bungled the investigations, but this has been denied by force chiefs.

Stephen Port was found guilty at London's Old Bailey of 22 offences against 11 men. Credit: Met Police

Jack Taylor's sister, Donna, said she felt strongly about the issue of homophobia, which the coroner had ruled the jury could not make a finding on for legal reasons. "Every one of the boys was not treated like individual humans and we have said that they were discriminated against from the very beginning," she said.

"The way they were seen as a druggie, homeless, gay. It's not acceptable. Regardless of what you are in this world you should be treated as an individual." The families called on the police watchdog, the IOPC, to reopen its investigation into the Met's handling of the case, which it was said to be considering.

Seventeen officers were investigated by watchdog the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), and nine were found to have performance failings. None of the nine were disciplined or lost their jobs, and five have since been promoted.

Port struck three more times before he was caught, killing each of his young, gay, male victims in near-identical circumstances, with police failing to link him to the deaths despite detective work carried out by the victims' family and friends that would lead them to the culprit.

"Gabriel's former boyfriend was giving them evidence on a plate that would have led them to Stephen Port" - John Pape, a friend of the second victim Gabriel Kovari, said "prejudice and discrimination" meant police missed key evidence

Jurors acknowledged the officers were under pressure and had a heavy workload, but said there were "failings that cannot be overlooked" which allowed for missed opportunities and enabled Port to continue his offending. They said the Murder Investigation Team missed the opportunity to take over the case, which "may have led to the earlier capture of the male responsible".

The inquest into the four men opened in October, six years after Port was found guilty of the murders of Jack Taylor, Daniel Whitworth, Gabriel Kovari and Anthony Walgate.

Jurors have spent the last week in retirement considering whether police actions in any way contributed to the deaths.

Since the inquests began, a new alleged victim has come forward to say they believe they were drugged and sexually assaulted by Port in the same period.

Speaking after the verdict, lawyer, Neil Hudgell, on behalf of the families, said: "The inadequate investigations by the Metropolitan Police into the deaths of Anthony, Gabriel, Daniel and Jack should be on public record as one of the most widespread institutional failures in modern history. "The jury has been unanimous in identifying fundamental failings and basic errors in the investigation into Anthony's death which meant that Port was not stopped, and was allowed to carry on with his terrible acts. "We continue to believe that had the police done their jobs properly in the first place, Gabriel, Daniel and Jack would not have been killed and other young men would not have been drugged and raped by him."

Jack Taylor with his sisters

Mr Whitworth's stepmother Mandy Whitworth said she felt "elated" that the families had finally been listened to and pleased that the jury agreed with them. But she said the conclusion of the inquest had brought home the loss the family had suffered and how much Daniel was missed. Mrs Sak said it was the police failure to listen. She said: "It was literally as soon as I found out, as soon as I started to contact the police I kept telling them he (Anthony) was murdered. "If they had just listened to us, the family, all his friends, and investigated properly, as I said, none of us would be sat here and they would have done their job." Tom Walgate added that if police had done basic checks on Port's background and examined his computer earlier, "those other boys would have enjoyed Christmas with their families".

Helen Ball, the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner, has described the findings of the inquest jury as "devastating".

Speaking after the verdict, Ms Ball said: "(The jury) have also found the deaths of three of those young men (Mr Kovari, Mr Whitworth and Mr Taylor) could probably have been prevented had the initial police responses and investigations been better. "It is a devastating finding. "We are deeply sorry there were failings in the police investigations, and the responses to their murders." She added: "I give my own and the Met's heartfelt apologies. "All those who loved Anthony, Gabriel, Daniel and Jack expected a thorough and professional police investigation into their deaths, and it's a great sadness for me and for everybody at the Met that this did not happen."

Port, a chef, stalked his victims on dating apps and plied them with fatal amounts of date-rape drugs so he could attack them over a 16-month killing spree.

The daily inquest hearings previously heard accusations that police ignored leads that led to Port, including from the victims’ family members and friends.

It was also told that the Metropolitan Police murder squad turned down requests from borough officers to take over the investigations.

There were also substantial delays in analysing evidence on Port’s laptop, seized after he was initially arrested over Mr Walgate’s death.

Police called to give evidence described having to cope with heavy workloads, and lacking the skills at a local level to properly investigate homicides on a patch with relatively few suspicious deaths.

The coroner, Sarah Munro QC, told inquest jurors she intended to write a prevention of future deaths report, saying the inquests had "raised a number of serious concerns".

Officers were accused of a lack of professional curiosity, leaving family members and friends of the victims to carry out their own investigations.

"If it was a young girl left out by the bins, there would be a lot more investigating" - Anthony Walgate's mum Sarah Sak believes homophobia was at the root police failure to investigate

It took the Metropolitan Police 16 months to link the men's deaths and catch their killer despite the similarities of the deaths.

The 6ft 5in serial killer was eventually stopped when a police officer working on the Walgate investigation recognised Port as the unidentified figure caught on CCTV walking alongside Mr Taylor through Barking town centre the night he was last seen alive.

His first victim, Mr Walgate, originally from Hull, went to meet Port in Barking on June 17 2014 and was not seen again until his lifeless body was discovered, outside Port's flat, in the early hours of June 19. It was Port who contacted the emergency services, repeatedly changing his account of how he came to find the young man.

The same dog walker even found the bodies of two of Port's victims. Barbara Denham found the body of Mr Kovari propped up against a wall in the churchyard near to her home in Barking, 400 yards from Port's flat, in August 2014. Just a month later she came across Mr Whitworth's body in the same spot.

In September 2015, Mr Taylor’s lifeless body was discovered in the same church graveyard by a park warden, apparently from a drugs overdose.

The stepmother of Mr Whitworth, Port's youngest victim, sobbed as she heard inquest evidence laying police failings bare. Amanda Whitworth called it "a huge tragedy" that three of the four men Port killed would still be alive had police properly investigated the first death.

"The police have blood on their hands" - Jack Taylor's sister believe police could have stopped Port before he killed their brother

Inspector Jason O’Donohue, who was leading the investigation into the death of Mr Taylor, said that other than all three deaths "involving men" he wasn't aware of any similarities.

Giving evidence last week, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Cundy said he was "deeply sorry" standards weren't met.

Mr Cundy was not in the Met during Port’s 16-month killing spree in 2014 and 2015 but led the review of the investigations into the deaths of his victim.

Addressing the victims’ loved ones, Mr Cundy: “Every single one of you absolutely had a right to expect a professional investigation to the standards all of us expected."

An Old Bailey jury convicted Port of a total of 22 offences against 11 men, including the four murders, four rapes, 10 counts of administering a substance, and four sex assaults in November 2016.

He was cleared on three counts of rape. Port was found guilty of murdering four young men after duping police for over a year as he committed his killing spree.

He secretly drugged his victims, whom he found through dating apps, to indulge in a fetish for sex with unconscious men and then dumped their bodies yards from his flat.