Did Police Homophobia Allow a Serial Killer to Target Gay Men for Over a Year?
40-year-old Stephen Port allegedly drugged and murdered four young men in London after meeting them through Grindr.
Illustrations by Alex Jenkins
When Barbara Denham first saw Gabriel Kovari's body, sitting upright against a wall in an East London graveyard on her early morning dog walking route, she thought he was just sleeping. She walked past, but it occurred to her that he was just a little too still.
"I thought, he hasn't moved - he hasn't flinched, it didn't look right," she told the Daily Mail. "So I just clapped near his face and shouted 'whoo hoo', but there was nothing. He had dark glasses on, a bit askew. I gently touched his cheek and withdrew immediately as it was cold."
It was the summer of 2014 and Kovari, a slim, blonde, 22-year-old artist, had recently arrived in London from Slovakia. With only a handful of friends in the city, Kovari had made it known on Grindr that he was looking for a room to rent. John*, a television commercial producer had a spare room at his home in Deptford and so they arranged to meet up.
"He was a sweet-natured guy, he had a kind of quiet charm," says John. "I felt comfortable inviting him to lodge with me and we became friends. He told me he was looking to make a go of it in London and this made sense, because yes, this city attracts young gay men from other parts of the UK and Europe, it's seen as a tolerant, liberal place compared to others. He told me he wanted his life to begin in London."
Kovari stayed for six weeks, then told John he'd found a new place to stay. "We had a last little drink," says John. "That was the last I heard. I tried to contact him a few days later, but I never got a reply."
On August 28 2014, there was a knock at John's door. On his doorstep were four uniformed police officers, who asked John if he knew a Gabriel Kovari. Yes, he told them, Gabriel had been his lodger. The officers informed John that Kovari had been found dead that morning in St Margaret's church graveyard in Barking, a neighborhood in East London. The death was unexplained, they said.
Roughly two months before that, in June, Anthony Walgate and his two friends, China and Kiera, all in their early 20s, were on a summer break from Middlesex University, where they were getting their degrees in fashion design. China and Kiera remember it well, because it was the last time they saw Walgate alive.
They wiled away the afternoon drinking in the sun, taking in some rare British rays. After a meal in a Turkish cafe they went back to Walgate's room in a shared house in Golder's Green, North West London. "Anthony was talking passionately about going to the Royal College of Art to do his Masters degree in fashion," Kiera recalls of the skinny, blonde 23-year-old young man from Hull in the north of England. "He'd become dedicated and self-confident over the last year and was really looking forward to starting out as a designer."
Later that Sunday, Walgate told them about a meet-up he had arranged on a dating app for the coming Tuesday. Since one of China's friends had been mugged by a gang on Tinder, Walgate made sure to tell his companions who he was meeting, as well as where and when. On Tuesday evening, Kiera remembers messaging Walgate as he was getting ready. "Anthony was waiting to go out and was talking about what he was going to wear," she says.
The next day, Walgate failed to show up to meet China for a pre-arranged drink in Soho. She guessed he was sleeping off a big night. The day after, she still heard nothing; Walgate didn't answer his phone. So China went looking for him at the shared house where he lived. Walgate's room was locked. She tried shouting and called his phone again, but there was just silence, so she went to report her friend missing at the local police station. The officer tapped the details into a computer and said that, unfortunately, Anthony had been found dead at 4:20 AM that morning in Barking, East London.
It dawned on John not long after the body of his former lodger was found that something sinister was afoot. He had read an article in a local newspaper about the unexplained death of Anthony Walgate, whose body had been found a few minutes walk from the churchyard where Kovari had been found.
"I remember thinking, hang on a minute, this is weird," says John. "So I Googled 'unexplained deaths' and whether it was common to have them so close to each other. It looked suspicious. They were similar ages. Dumped within a small area. It seemed, well, dodgy."
Then, on September 20, Denham, the dog walker who found Kovari, came across another body propped up in the same place as before. "There was a bare space between sock and jean so I just gently touched his leg," she later told a reporter. Like the previous body, this one was "virtually sitting upright, in virtually exactly the same spot."
It was the body of Daniel Whitworth, a 21-year-old trainee chef from Gravesend in Kent, south east England. Only six days earlier, Whitworth had tweeted a smiling picture of himself apple-picking in the sun-dappled Kent countryside.
"At the time I thought, here are three young men found in almost the same spot, within three months of each other, and no-one is saying anything," says John.
A week later, a report in the Barking and Dagenham Post said that following autopsies on the bodies of Kovari and Whitworth, police were not looking for suspects in either death. The article also mentioned the death of 39-year-old Mushud Ahmed, whose body had also been discovered near to the churchyard, but who appears to have died as the result of an existing health problem.
At the time in 2014, police were not linking the deaths of Kovari in August and Whitworth in September to that of Walgate in June. Detective Chief Inspector of Barking and Dagenham Police, the lead detective in the deaths of Kovari and Whitworth, described the incidents as "unusual and slightly confusing, but not suspicious."
The Post's story hinted at the possibility that Kovari and Whitworth were homeless, telling readers: "It has not been ruled out, that both men were living rough within the walls of the Abbey, which provide some shelter. DCI Kirk said his team had seen clothes hanging out to dry in the grounds."
Serial killings—officially defined as the murders of three or more people over a period of over three months by the same person—are uncommon in the UK. About one in every 100 homicides in the UK is linked to a mass, serial, or spree chain of killings. In most cases of serial killings, the victims are from marginalized or minority communities, such as sex workers or gay men. It is no coincidence that many of the most notorious serial killers in Britain—Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper, Dennis Nilsen, the Gay Slayer and the Suffolk Strangler—targeted these groups. These groups tend to be vulnerable targets for homicidal predators because the victims' deaths are more likely to go unnoticed and undetected.
It's not only the killers who see these people as expendable. In 1981, at the start of the trial of the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, Attorney General of Britain Sir Michael Havers remarked of Sutcliffe's 13 victims: "Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women."
The trend isn't just limited to the UK. Tales of the Grim Sleeper, a 2015 film by Nick Broomfield tells the story of alleged American serial killer Lonnie Franklin. Franklin is currently on trial for murdering 10 women, and is suspected of killing up to 200 in South Los Angeles between 1985 and 2010. Most of the women killed were sex workers, and the film criticizes the police for a slow investigation and failing to raise the alarm.
In Britain, the police's track record in solving serial killings involving gay men is as wretched as it is for those of sex workers. Dennis Nilsen, who killed 15 mostly young, gay, or homeless men between 1978 and 1983 after inviting the victims back to his North London home, was not caught as a result of dedicated detective work, but because his neighboring tenants could not flush their toilets due to the multiple body parts Nilsen had disposed of down the drains. A man who survived a murder attempt by Nilsen very early on in the serial killer's career—he awoke in Nilsen's home, tied to a chair while being strangled with his own tie—alerted police, but was ignored because officers believed Nilsen when he told them the incident was merely "a homosexual lover's tiff."
Police were similarly slow to act when Michele "Michael" Lupo strangled and mutilated four gay men over an eight-week stretch in 1986. The Italian-born flower shop owner from Chelsea—technically a "spree" killer because he murdered over a period of less than three months—met his victims in gay bars. The police were criticized after officers delayed examining the body of Lupo's second victim, stalling the investigation, because the deceased was HIV positive.
So pitiful was the police response to the notorious Gay Slayer killings—in which Colin Ireland brutally strangled to death five gay men over three months in 1993—that Ireland actually began leaving clues for law enforcement. After carefully cleaning each crime scene, the killer started putting condoms in the dead men's mouths and placing toys, including two teddy bears in a 69 position, on their corpses. Despite these clues, police still failed to link the murders; in the end, Ireland himself had to call them up and tell them that the murders were the work of a serial killer.
A 2007 review into the Metropolitan Police's investigation of 10 killings and attacks on LGBT people concluded that the police's work on such cases was influenced by institutional homophobia. The review, published by the independent police advisors LGBT Advisory Group, condemned the 1993 Gay Slayer police investigation as a "serious failure of policing." It said: "The initial investigations seemed to us to be more focused on determining promiscuity and risk taking," adding that more should have been done to warn the community.
In fact, one of the world's foremost experts on serial killers, the British criminologist David Wilson, says that the gay community receives "at best, a patchy service from the police." In his 2007 book Serial Killers: Hunting Britons and Their Victims 1960-2006, Wilson concluded that "homophobia has created the circumstances in which gay men have become one of the prime targets of serial killers in this country."
While somewhere between one and ten percent of the UK population is LGBT, since Nilsen's conviction in 1983, gay men have accounted for all or most of the victims of five out of the 14 serial killers since active in the UK.
By 2015, China and Kiera had become frustrated with the police's approach in investigating the death of Walgate. "The police didn't like us calling them," says Kiera. "They fobbed us off. They were inconsistent, unhelpful and unsympathetic. The impression we had is that the police thought, 'It's a boy from Hull, no one's going to push it, they'll lie down and accept our version of events.'"
The women claim that one of the officers inadvertently let slip that police suspected foul play in Walgate's death and that a killer would never be found, telling them that, "at the end of the day, there are only two people who will ever know what happened on that night and one of them is dead."
As police continued to deny, when questioned by victims' friends, that the deaths of Walgate, Kovari and Whitworth were linked, John contacted the veteran British LGBT civil rights activist Peter Tatchell, who suggested John contact Nick Duffy, editor of the online gay newspaper, PinkNews. Duffy agreed to express their concerns that the deaths were not being widely reported, and that whatever was behind the murders, the community should be warned. Duffy approached police in January 2015 but was told there was nothing suspicious and no need to cause undue alarm. PinkNews decided not to run a story on the killings.
The only logical conclusion as to what made the police sure the three deaths were not the work of a serial killer was the discovery, clutched in Daniel Whitworth's hand, of a suicide note.
In June 2015, at Kovari and Whitworth's inquests at Walthamstow Coroner's Court, a statement from Kovari's family said that the young man was a gifted artist who had wanted to make a difference. "He was full of love and care for others and loved the company of his friends, a very inquisitive and special child gifted in arts, he had excellent relationships with all his relatives and the desire to prove himself to the world," the statement read. Whitworth's father Adam described his son as a happy man who loved gardening. "He was an active and intelligent outdoors boy who loved days on his bike exploring leafy byways," Adam said.
The coroner then read out the suicide note found on Whitworth. It described a narrative in which Kovari and Whitworth had become involved in London's underground chemsex scene–sex parties facilitated by dating apps such as Grindr and drugs including GHB, crystal meth, and mephedrone.
The suicide note stated that Kovari and Whitworth had known each other, and that, at a sex party, Whitworth had accidentally given Kovari an overdose of GHB, a drug notorious for having a very steep dosing curve, making overdose a real hazard. Because of his grief, the note said, Whitworth poetically killed himself with the same drug a month later, in the same spot he had dumped his dead friend. Part of Whitworth's note read:
"I can't go on any more. I took the life of my friend Gabriel. We were just having some fun at a mate's place and I got carried away and gave him another shot of G. It was an accident. I know I will go to prison if I go to the police. I have taken what G[HB] I had left, with sleeping pills. If it does kill me it's what I deserve. This way I can at least be with Gabriel again."
"Drugs Killed Lovers Found Dead at Barking Church," a local newspaper headline read after the inquest. To the public, it was a Romeo and Juliet-style tragedy, with GHB as the deadly poison. The report did not mention the death of Anthony Walgate. The serial killer theory was just idle gossip. Case closed.
Except that the killer was not finished. Three months after the inquest, on September 14, 2015, a fourth body, that of 25-year-old forklift driver Jack Taylor, was discovered lying in North Street, Barking, close to where the other three bodies had been found. Taylor had been out with friends on the evening of September 12. He returned home, but called a cab and went out again in the early hours of September 13. Security camera footage showed Taylor meeting a man in Barking between 2 AM and 3 AM, and the pair walking off together in the direction of the churchyard.
Initially, Taylor's death was not linked to the previous three. In October, the investigations into all four deaths were taken out of Barking's control and referred to the Metropolitan Police's homicide and major crime command.
On October 19 2015, police announced they had charged Stephen Port, a 40-year-old chef from Barking, with fatally poisoning, abusing, and dumping all four men after meeting them on dating sites. Police allege Port killed his victims with drinks spiked with large doses of GHB. The Metropolitan Police announced it had referred its handling of the case to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) because of what the agency called "potential vulnerabilities in the response" to the four deaths.
Whoever murdered these four young men—and a jury will decide whether Stephen Port is guilty at his trial in October of this year—the police investigation was disastrous. Despite numerous warnings, the police refused to believe the almost identical Barking murders were the work of a serial killer, because of a note they had found in Whitworth's hand.
The police were too ready to believe the scenario outlined in the note because it was credible: It gave them a plausible story, of young gay men at sex parties, lethal drugs, and guilt that would have seemed more likely than the far-fetched theory of a forged suicide note. This was not an Agatha Christie novel, this was Barking, they must have thought.
When I asked the Met Police why it too so long to link the murders and alert the gay community, a spokesman told me they could not comment because of the upcoming trial.
Colin Sutton is a former Detective Chief Inspector who snared the high-profile serial killer Levi Bellfield, a man convicted of the murders of three young blonde women, including 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler, in West London in the 2000s. He says the suicide note should have been a critical part of the investigation.
"If it's genuine, it's suicide. If it's a fake, it's murder," Sutton said. "In this case the note was of extra significance because if it was false, they were potentially looking at a third murder, a serial killer in their midst, so it raises the stakes. It's a very important call that someone needs to make. So I would imagine any detective worth his or her salt would quickly ascertain whether it is genuine or not."
In concluding that all four men were murdered, it would appear police have subsequently decided that the suicide note was a fake. There is a chance that the initial investigation may not have forensically linked the note to Whitworth, instead relying on handwriting analysis. "If they didn't carry out forensic tests on the suicide note for fingerprints and DNA it's slack of them to be honest because handwriting analysis is notoriously unreliable," Sutton said. "It means they did not prove the note was genuine in a scientific way."
Moreover, there appears to be no evidence that Whitworth and Kovari ever met, let alone that they were lovers who took GHB at sex parties.
How crucial the role of dating apps played in these murders is hard to fathom. Could the killer have done this just by meeting people in pubs? China and Kiera told me they do not blame dating apps, only the predators who use them. But, as the popularity of dating apps increases, dating app-related violence is also on the rise.
Figures released under British Freedom of Information lawsthis January revealed that in the UK, crimes connected to dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr, including rape, blackmail, grooming, robbery and assaults, increased seven-fold, from 55 in 2013 to 412 in 2015. In March 2016, two men were jailed for six years after beating and robbing a man they had lured to a house in Northampton after meeting him on Grindr. In December 2015, PinkNews reported that two people had been mugged after being lured to Croydon, South London, for potential dates via Grindr.
The issue isn't limited to LGBT victims. There were more than double the number of crimes connected to Tinder between 2013 and 2015, a dating app more commonly used by straight people. In March 2016, Jason Lawrance, a 50-year old self-employed builder from Hampshire was jailed for life after raping five women and assaulting two others he had met on Match.com, which is also more regularly used by straight people.
So should people be afraid of hooking up online? Matthew, a 35-year-old arts promoter from Manchester who uses Grindr every now and then, doesn't see much difference between dating apps and bars. Gay people, he says, have always had to put themselves at more risk than straight people.
"I felt sorry because they [the Barking victims] were young and perhaps using the app as they wanted to be discrete, maybe they couldn't be 'out' in their immediate surroundings," Matthew says. "Grindr can cast around for miles so you can meet people outside your local area. So in that respect they are victims of the same historical problem about gay people putting themselves at risk because it's something they are hiding because they fear persecution. But saying that I think all young people, men and women, are at risk in this digital age of cyber dating."
"I've taken risks cruising in Manchester down the canal," he says. "Some people think there is a serial killer drowning gay men in the canal there. I've been attacked there, I've seen a body in the canal. When the canal area was still run down, two men pulled a gun out on a group of us. But because you were doing something illegal you couldn't tell the police. These days people forget the risk, as apps have normalized 'discreet meets', so it's something a 13-year-old will do without thinking. And I'm sure loads of dating app crimes go unreported by both men and women. It's the shame of being complicit in your own risky behavior, or of not being deserving of an outcome."
In addition to referring the Barking investigations to the IPCC, the Metropolitan Police has arranged a series of public meetings with the LGBT community in Barking, in an apparent attempt to build bridges.
At the first meeting in November last year, locals suggested to police officers on the panel that, had there been serious attempts by the police to reach out to the LGBT community following the first death, the other three murders may have been prevented. Members of the community also told police they didn't report hate crimes because of the way LGBT individuals are treated. Others added that there were no safe spaces, no places to socialize, and no LGBT activities in the area. Police said in the last year they had increased the number of LGBT liaison officers to eight in London and planned to update their equality and diversity training for local officers.
But John is not convinced. At a second meeting in February, he told the panel of police officers and council leaders: "You cannot restore faith in me, a member of the gay community, until I understand fully why it took the deaths of four young gay men in a short space of time in the same area, for the police to regard those deaths as suspicious."
The Leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, Councillor Darren Rodwell, told the meeting: "We're all agreed this investigation has gone wrong, but part of the problem is that there are 12,000 gay people in the borough yet we've not got an open gay community in Barking. If something bad happens, it gets around the community quicker if there is a better network."
When I asked the police officers at the meeting why the police did not raise the alarm and failed to link the cases after the third murder they told me they could not comment because of the upcoming trial.
It's surprising, but at the time of the Barking murders, even when Port was charged in October and the story gained national media coverage, many people in Barking had no idea about the case.
"It was difficult to gauge the reaction among gay people in Barking because there was so little reaction; most people just did not know about it," said a member of the LGBT community group LGBT Network Barking and Dagenham who did not want to be identified. "There are no gay venues at all here. It's an isolated community here in Barking, but there's still a need to mix with their peers, so it's easy to get sucked into Grindr."
In March, five months after police charged Port, I ask John about the impact of the Barking killings on him. "These murders have made London seem a darker, more dangerous place," he tells me. I also ask him what he thinks of the police's efforts to reassure Barking's gay community.
"From what I've seen and heard from the senior ranks of the Barking police force at the two meetings, they haven't convinced me that they have genuine insight, understanding or solidarity with the LGBT community," John says. "If they're going to be able to prevent this from happening again that's what the [Metropolitan Police] is going to have to acquire. I am going to assume there is still, in 2016, a lack of diversity in the Met and a lack of compassion for minority groups, which leads to dangerous blind-spots. Until that changes some members of society will always be more at risk than others."
I also ask Elizabeth Yardley, an associate professor of criminology who specializes in homicide at Birmingham City University, why police investigations into some murders are so inadequate.
"Things have gotten much better than they used to be, but police may still make assumptions when they deal with gay murder victims," Yardley says. "It's been described as a kind of tunnel vision. There are lots of stereotypes made, subconsciously or not, about people's behavior; that gay people are all part of an underground culture. This can lead to narrower lines of enquiry that will prove costly in the long run. Police don't deal with heterosexual murder victims by focusing on their sexuality in this way because it would lead to a very limited investigation. The reality is, it would appear that the murders of gay people or sex workers are investigated with much less urgency that they would be if it was a 12-year-old schoolchild. A murder victim is a murder victim, all deserve justice."
This was a thoroughly modern murder case. The alleged use of a mobile phone dating app as a way of preying on victims; the use of a psychoactive drug increasingly popular on the clubbing and sex party scene as a poison and, probably, as a red herring. The true scale of how badly the police messed up this investigation will be determined at the trial in October and by the IPCC investigation, but what the Barking murders have already confirmed is that, in the UK, not every murder victim is treated equally. Shamefully, inequality and prejudice continues even after someone has taken their last breath.
*Several people have been identified only by their first name at their request.
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