Coroner's report outlines concerns with Stephen Port murder investigations

Stephen Port victims clockwise from top left: Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, Jack Taylor and Ant

Clockwise from top left: Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, Jack Taylor and Anthony Walgate - Credit: Met Police

A coroner has written a report outlining a number of concerns with the investigations into the deaths of the men murdered by serial killer Stephen Port.

Sarah Munro QC published her prevention of future deaths report following inquests into the deaths of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor.

The men all died at the hands of Port, who drugged them with overdoses of GHB and dumped their bodies near his flat in Cooke Street, Barking between June 2014 and September 2015.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell said the families of the four men who died were grateful to the coroner "for her detailed consideration of the many issues raised throughout the inquests".

He added: “It is clear to see from the length of the prevention of future deaths report that there remain very many areas still to be addressed, not just by the Metropolitan Police, but by police forces nationally.”

In December, inquest jurors found that “fundamental failures” by the police were likely to have contributed to three of the men’s deaths.

Ms Munro said she had been “extremely concerned and disappointed” to hear evidence of the blunders.

The coroner acknowledged that the Metropolitan Police had made efforts to identify the causes of the mistakes and make changes, but said addressing a lack of professional curiosity was a key lesson.

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A Met spokesperson said the force had received the report and would be responding to address the recommendations.

After the inquests, assistant commissioner Helen Ball apologised for the failings in the police response.

Stephen Port was sentenced to life in prison in 2016 for the murders of the four men.

Stephen Port was sentenced to life in prison in 2016 for the murders of the four men. - Credit: Met Police

Seventeen officers were investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) over the deaths and nine were found to have performance failings.

But none of the nine were disciplined or lost their jobs, and five have since been promoted.

The report also expressed concern over how deaths are classified as “unexplained” rather than suspicious.

Mr Kovari’s death was classed as “unexplained but not suspicious” within five hours of his body being discovered, despite an inspector later admitting they had no idea how he had died.

Mr Whitworth’s death was also classed as non-suspicious on the day he was found, even though investigators had not properly checked that a fake suicide note found with his body was genuine.

The letter had been planted by Port, falsely claiming that Mr Whitworth had accidentally killed Mr Kovari.

Ms Munro said: “The term ‘unexplained’ as used in the current policy may once again distract officers from the correct and necessary approach, which is for the death to be treated as suspicious unless and until the police investigation has established that it is not.”

Families of the four men believed that homophobia played a part in the failings.

While the coroner did not make her own finding on the issue, she said she agreed with a report by the IOPC that suggested “the possibility of assumptions being made about the lifestyle of young gay men and the potential vulnerability of men cannot be ignored”.

She also found that police leadership linked to the cases had been inadequate at inspector and sergeant level, including one inspector writing closing reports for Mr Kovari and Mr Whitworth’s deaths that “contained serious material inaccuracies”.

The report said: “More effective leadership might well have meant that other basic errors or oversights would have been corrected, such as the failure to obtain the critical intelligence on Stephen Port that was there to be found and the delay in getting Port’s laptop examined.

“It is a matter of concern that despite the regularly refreshed training that is now in place for detective sergeants and detective inspectors, and the additional leadership training in which the Metropolitan Police has invested, a lack of ownership and responsibility for the investigations of unexplained deaths may persist in officers who are supposed to be leading investigations into unexplained deaths.”

Other issues highlighted in the report included how news of the deaths were broken to the men’s loved ones.

Ms Munro said: “I was shocked and disappointed by the evidence that I heard, that in three of the four deaths there were errors made by those delivering the death message.

"In the fourth case (Mr Kovari’s) his family was not even informed by the police of his death and thereafter the designated family liaison officer never made contact with the family.

“It is obvious that the news of the death of a family member/partner is devastating. It is therefore a basic expectation of the police that they should be able to do this difficult task accurately and sensitively.”

The report acknowledged efforts made by the Met to improve use of internal crime recording systems, but said the coroner remained concerned that officers might not properly log lines of investigation, actions and outcomes.

Ms Munro felt that guidelines on when specialist murder squad detectives take over investigations from local officers should be made clearer.

The Met said it has until March 18 to respond.

Reporting by Press Association.