The “competence and adequacy” of the police investigations into the murders of four gay men by the serial killer Stephen Port will be examined at the inquests into their deaths, a jury has heard.
One key focus will be whether lives might have been saved if police had investigated the early deaths differently, said Sarah Munro, the assistant coroner for east London.
The four men – Anthony Walgate, 23, Gabriel Kovari, 22, Daniel Whitworth, 21, and Jack Taylor, 25 – were fatally drugged with GHB and raped by Port, who was convicted of the murders in 2016 and is serving a whole-life order.
But Port’s trial did not answer the important question of whether the deaths “might have been prevented had the police investigated the deaths differently”, Munro said as the inquests got under way at Barking town hall.
She said the “competence and adequacy of the police investigation” would be a focus and the inquests would examine if there were “opportunities missed that might, or even should, have stopped Stephen Port earlier. Those are the questions that lie ahead of us.”
The killings happened between June 2014 and September 2015. Port, now 46, dumped the bodies near his flat in Barking, with three of the victims left close to St Margaret’s church.
The inquest will examine “the police policies and procedures that should have been followed” as well as primacy, as officers from Barking and Dagenham borough command led the investigations into the deaths.
As GHB was found to be present in all four men, “we will explore with police witnesses whether, looking back, that common factor was properly understood or given sufficient weight at the time,” said Munro.
Walgate, a fashion student from Hull, was the first victim. His body was found in June 2014 slumped outside Port’s block of flats. Port was questioned and initially claimed he did not know Walgate, but later admitted he had hired him through an escort agency and claimed Walgate had taken drugs.
Port was later convicted of perverting the course of justice and jailed in March 2015. “By that time he had killed both Gabriel Kovari and Daniel Whitworth,” said Munro.
The bodies of Kovari, originally from Slovakia, and Whitworth, a chef, were found three weeks apart by the same dog walker in St Margaret’s churchyard in August and September 2014.
The jury heard that Whitworth was holding a “suicide note” claiming he had overdosed because he felt guilt and responsible for Kovari’s death. The note was a lie, said Munro, and had been written by Port. It included the line: “BTW please do not blame the guy I was with last night, we only had sex and then I left, he knows nothing of what I have done.” Police did not establish to whom this was meant to refer, she said.
Taylor’s body was found by a park attendant near the church in September 2015. Again GHB was found in his blood, and again Barking and Dagenham borough command investigated. It was not until CCTV footage emerged of Taylor meeting a man, identified as Port, that Port was arrested, the jury heard.
Munro said jurors would consider whether “mistakes were made” that may have delayed the moment Port was linked to all the deaths. “Putting it in its starkest form, we will have to consider whether, if the investigations had been conducted differently, the lives of those who died later might have been saved.”
The jury heard commemorative statements from the families of the victims.
Walgate was described as a “shy and quiet” child, who blossomed like a “cygnet into a swan” when he moved to London. His mother, Sarah Sak, said they spoke on the phone at least three times a week and those calls were among the things she missed most. “He either had me laughing or threatening to throttle him depending on what he had been up to.”
Kovari, 22, was described by his older brother Adam as a “very smart, talented, kind person” with a passion for drawing and languages. He had graduated months before he was murdered, and moved to London.
Whitworth “knew what he wanted and he went for it”, his father, Adam, said in a statement read aloud to the inquest. “I miss him enormously and I will never get over it.”
Taylor, 25, was “so vibrant, so full of energy and we would need hours to describe him and still only scratch the surface”, said his sisters, Donna and Jenny. “He was the best son, grandson, brother, uncle, nephew and friend and although most people say that about their loved ones, Jack really was the best and one of a kind.”
The inquests continue and are expected to last up to 10 weeks.