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Why Didn’t British Cops Take the Grindr Killer More Seriously?

After a series of ‘systemic failings’ gave a murderer free reign to target gay men, an inquest has been launched into the Met Police’s fatal homophobia

In the early hours of June 19, 2014, 39-year-old chef Stephen Port called the emergency services to report that he’d seen a young guy “collapsed, like he’s had a seizure or something,” on the streets of London. When paramedics arrived, they found 23-year-old fashion student Anthony Walgate slumped unconscious, his “body cross-legged and in an unnatural position.” Walgate’s top was pulled up, like his body had been dragged. 

Despite the paramedic reporting concerns of foul play, police ruled Walgate’s death as “unusual,” but “not suspicious.” In October 2015, after murdering three more victims, Port was arrested on suspicion of murder.

Details of the gruesome murders are only just trickling out into the U.K. press. It’s taken years of controversy and repeated pleas by the families of Port’s four victims — all of them young gay men — for an inquest into the murders to finally be launched. Beginning late last month and stretching over the next 10 weeks, the inquest will determine the adequacy and competency of the police tasked with investigating Port’s crimes, all in the hopes of determining to what extent police failures enabled the murders of three more victims.

Port is known as the “Grindr Killer,” but that’s not strictly accurate. Reports have shown he used a combination of gay escort websites and gay hookup sites like FitLads to track down and eventually kill his four victims: Walgate, murdered in June 2014, followed by Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor, killed between August 2014 and September 2015. In 2016, Port was sentenced to life in prison.

All existing evidence shows he could have been stopped years earlier had police treated the cases seriously. Widespread accusations of institutional homophobia have been leveled at the U.K.’s Met Police — in 2019, an independent watchdog investigated 17 police officers for misconduct related to the case, which acted as a precursor to the inquest happening now. The investigation alluded vaguely to unspecified “systemic failings,” but none of the officers were formally punished one resigned, and the other 16 refused to answer questions about the alleged mishandling, instead issuing pre-prepared statements that evaded accountability. Following the investigation, they were simply asked to “improve their performance.”

Nobody can say for sure why it’s taken so long to look into this, but studies have long shown that cops are held to different standards of accountability than the rest of us. Earlier this year, statistics released by the Independent Office for Police Conduct found that less than 10 percent of British police officers accused of gross misconduct were actually dismissed from the force. The report also showed that a further 848 officers were “found to have a case to answer over possible misconduct,” but only 363 were thoroughly investigated.

More information on this lack of convictions is hard to track down, but a 2017 review of deaths in U.K. police custody offered some explanation. The independent report found police officers are hugely unlikely to be prosecuted for their crimes, describing “a conscious or unconscious bias” toward letting corrupt officers walk free. According to the report, this is based on the belief that “officers’ accounts are generally perceived as credible and reliable.” In other words, cops are more likely to get away with committing crimes — a statement that rings true worldwide.

Sources close to the victims have long alleged that homophobia drove police refusal to scour for more details. The murders were all linked to chemsex — basically, taking a mixture of GHB, crystal meth and mephedrone before hooking up — which has led to accusations that the victims were written off as either “druggies” or as promiscuous. 

John Pape, Kovari’s former landlord, has spoken about this suspected prejudice in the past. After repeatedly attempting to report his suspicions, he attended a town hall meeting in 2016 in which police reps said they had “gay liaison officers” — none of whom ever contacted or aided Pape with reporting information on Kovari’s murder. “[Police] judged those four young lads and dismissed their families,” he told The Guardian. “I hope the LGBTQ community sees this for what it is.”

Despite the widespread lack of statistics on institutional homophobia in the U.K. police force, a string of officers have this year been reported and investigated for “racist, homophobic” comments. In January, three “toxic” officers were fired. Port’s case is arguably the highest-profile example of institutional homophobia, but British police have been widely criticized recently for being “unresponsive” to rapidly increasing hate-crime rates. In recent quotes issued to U.K.-based website PinkNews, politician Nadia Whittome outlined that LGBTQ+ people are often reluctant to report crimes for fear of police homophobia. “The lack of justice represents an institutional failure of hate-crime victims,” she said.

This could be why so much damning evidence has emerged over the last few years to indicate that cops missed key clues when it came to these murders. Months after Port made the aforementioned phone call, he was charged with “perverting the case of justice” and imprisoned for eight months after lying repeatedly in his follow-up accounts of the night of Walgate’s murder. Despite this, police didn’t seize or examine his laptop until he had killed two more victims after he was released. If they had, they would have seen that Port first accessed Walgate’s gay escort profile on June 13, 2014. Within minutes, he had scoured porn sites for videos on “sleeping boys,” “taking date rape drug” and “gay raped and tortured nude young boy.”

There were other key links missed throughout police interactions with Port. Two of his victims — Kovari and Whitworth — were killed within weeks of each other, and both bodies were found in the same spot by the same dog-walker. Whitworth’s body — the second to be found — was discovered alongside a planted suicide note, which stated he had accidentally killed Kovari with a drug overdose. The note then said Whitworth killed himself due to guilt, and ended with a promise that “this had nothing to do with the guy I was with last night.” The guy, of course, was Port.

Police took the note at face value, despite a pathologist’s report finding “there was bruising below both arms in the armpit regions which is unlikely to have been caused accidentally and may have resulted from manual handling of the deceased, most likely prior to death.”

It wasn’t until the murder of Taylor in September 2015 that police started investigating these cases, but they didn’t do so voluntarily. It was Taylor’s family that spent weeks researching his death, eventually piecing together the links between his murder and the three previous cases: All were young gay men who died through drug overdose, and their bodies were all found in the same area. Afterwards, the family wasn’t contacted by police for nearly two weeks. “I think it was more that there’s another young boy — a druggie — I really don’t think they cared at all,” Taylor’s mom said to the BBC.

The long-awaited inquest has already been highly emotional, but the results — set to be issued early next year after witness testimonies and statements — will offer more clarity on the extent to which police errors proved fatal. Already, the case has flagged a dire need for officers to take queer victims seriously and tackle what appears to be institutional bias within the police force.

Ultimately, all the victims’ families want is for similar tragedies like these to be taken seriously and prevented in future. “We miss his laugh, his humor, his personality, his love for his family and everything about him,” said the sisters of Taylor, whose own investigations set the wheels in motion for Port’s eventual prosecution. “We will never stop fighting for you, Jack.”