Simon Nelson on Four Lives (available on BBC iPlayer)
When Anthony Walgate was found dead outside Stephen Port’s flat in June 2014, the police were quick to conclude it was a gay sex worker accidentally overdosing on GHB.
Port went on to murder three more young men between the ages of 21 and 25 over the next 15 months. The recent BBC drama Four Lives, first aired 3-5 January, tells the story of the flawed, incompetent and homophobic investigation by Barking and Dagenham police into the four deaths. It almost concluded that all of the deaths were accidental drug overdoses, sex games gone wrong, or suicide.
The release of Four Lives was delayed while inquests into the deaths of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor took place. The outcome damned the police investigation and vindicated the families and friends of the victims.
The Metropolitan Police’s actions, said the inquest jury, “probably” contributed to three of the four deaths. The drama details some of the failings. The police did not follow up basic lines of enquiry, not even a more thorough investigation of Port when he was arrested for perverting the course of justice by lying about not knowing Anthony Walgate. Even when the police realised he must have been the last person to see Walgate alive, they failed to question his explanation of a self-administered drug overdose.
Daniel Whitworth’s boyfriend was refused access to a forged “suicide note” written by Port, because they were not married. It was claimed in the original inquest that his family had agreed it was in his handwriting, but they hadn't. The bed sheet he was found wrapped in was not tested for DNA.
John Pape, who knew Gabriel Kovari for six weeks prior to his death and went to both PinkNews, the LGBT news website, and Galop, an LGBT charity, to raise concerns about the apparent unconnected deaths in Barking, said, “To my mind, the only thing that makes any sense of how disturbingly incompetent this investigation was, is prejudice.
“And if it means that the lives and deaths of young gay and bi men aren’t treated with significance and respect, that amounts to institutional homophobia.”
It was not within the remit of the inquests to say if the police were guilty of institutional homophobia. Anthony Walgate’s mother Sarah Sak says: “The Met had fought tooth and nail to keep the homophobia question out.”
Homophobia regarding the victims and assumptions about their lifestyle were there. Despite the families of three of the victims being sceptical that they would have died of drug overdoses, the police were quick to pigeonhole them as chem sex related drug deaths. The duty inspector described the location that three of the victims were found in as a “haven for gay sex (even dogging) and rough sleepers”.
The original IPCC investigation in 2019 found that several officers had acted below the standards expected but handed out no disciplinary action. Of the 17 officers investigated, seven have now been promoted. The Independent Office for Police Conduct has said it may reopen its investigation.
Four Lives is sensitively done and puts the fight for justice for the victims at the centre of the drama. Sheridan Smith as Anthony Walgate’s mother Sarah Sak, and Jaime Winstone and Stephanie Hyam as Jack Taylor’s sisters Donna and Jenny, are unrelenting in questioning the police approach. Stephen Merchant, playing Port, does not glamorise the character or seek to explain his motivations.
In a documentary released at the same time as Four Lives, Sarah Sak says she believes that the police were just as responsible for the deaths following her son's as Port himself.
• For what we said when Stephen Port was convicted in 2016, see here.