Published: 15:46, 25 October 2021
| Updated: 16:25, 25 October 2021
A police chief has denied responsibility for “systemic” errors in the investigation into the death of serial killer Stephen Port’s first victim.
Chief Superintendent Andy Ewing was Barking and Dagenham Borough Commander at the time Anthony Walgate was murdered by serial killer Port in June 2014. Port went on to kill more victims including 21-year-old Daniel Whitworth from Gravesend.
Giving evidence at inquests into Port’s four victims today, Mr Ewing, who has since retired, accepted there were errors, but denied they were systemic.
Mr Walgate, a 23-year-old fashion student from Hull, was found dead outside Port’s flat in Barking, east London, on June 19, 2014 after being given a fatal dose of the drug GHB.
Port had alerted emergency services anonymously, purporting to be a passer-by, then lied to investigators when they tracked him down.
Within hours of Mr Walgate’s body being found, Mr Ewing was briefed that Port had a previous allegation of sex assault against him, according to a note in his day book.
But the intelligence from the Police National Computer did not come to light as part of the investigation until nearly a week later, jurors were told.
Asked about his notes, Mr Ewing said: “I cannot comment on where the information came from.
“That information should have been included in any assessment of the situation at an early stage.”
Days later, Mr Ewing was copied into an email by acting Detective Chief Inspector Tony Kirk appealing for the case to be taken over by a murder investigation team.
Mr Kirk wrote of a duty to get to the bottom of what happened in “what are increasingly suspicious circumstances”.
He told senior colleagues that “on the balance of probability, Anthony died at the hands of another”.
Mr Ewing told jurors that the dispute over primacy - its state of importance - had been “unprecedented”.
Andrew O’Connor, counsel to the coroner, asked: “Did you think then, or do you think now, it was surprising (that) the decision was primacy would not be taken over for this case?”
Mr Ewing replied: “I really cannot recall what I thought at the time around the issue of primacy.”
Jurors heard he went on to write in an email that he was “really unhappy” about the system of work.
He stated: “My position on this is that we push for a PIP3 accredited SIO (senior investigating officer) whenever there is any possibility of a homicide – not just ask for advice. We do not have such detectives on Borough.”
Mr Ewing told jurors that he could not recall why he sent that email.
When toxicology results for Mr Walgate came back, a detective inspector asked a sergeant to refer the case back to the homicide team, jurors heard.
In fact, neither of them made the referral and the sergeant eventually closed the investigation, the inquest was told.
Mr Ewing said he could not comment on the matter, as it was the first time he had heard about it.
Mr O’Connor pressed him, saying: “You were at the top of the tree. We see the requirement being placed on you to ensure a functional effective CID unit was in place.
“That failing – or apparent failing – together with others does suggest there was not a functioning CID unit in place at the time.”
Mr Ewing replied: “I accept there were errors that were made but I am struggling to see how that is a systemic failure which was part of my responsibility and statement of expectation.”
Henrietta Hill QC, representing families of the victims, questioned if there had been “visible, intrusive, supportive leadership”.
She highlighted a series of issues in the investigation that she said “did amount to serious mistakes on the Borough”.
They included failures in intelligence checks on Port; his laptop not being downloaded; no follow-up interview; and not referring the case back to homicide detectives.
'There were failures of leadership, failures to direct and support the investigation and failures to resource the borough-led investigation...'
Ms Hill said there were additional failures in not taking advice on GHB and not listening to Mr Walgate’s concerned family and friends.
She said: “Do you accept those failings on behalf of the Borough?”
Mr Ewing told jurors he had only learned about what had happened in his preparation for the inquest.
Ms Hill continued: “There were failures of leadership, failures to direct and support the investigation and failures to resource the borough-led investigation.”
Mr Ewing said support by the murder investigation team was directly determined by others and was “not something within my gift”.
The inquest heard how the investigation took place amid budget cuts and reduction in staffing numbers, with more officers acting up in senior positions.
But Mr Ewing insisted that Barking and Dagenham Borough CID unit remained generally “fit for purpose”.
Port, who was convicted of perverting the course of justice in relation to Mr Walgate, killed Daniel Whitworth, Gabriel Kovari and Jack Taylor before he was stopped.
Dr Anton van Dellen, who represents Mr Whitworth’s partner, asked: “Do you, as the most senior officer on Borough at the time, accept any personal responsibility for those string of failings?”
Mr Ewing said: “Having reflected on this for many years and having looked at the material available to me, I believed the actions I took at the time were appropriate.”
The inquests at Barking Town Hall continue.
The inquests are examining potential failures in the police investigation and whether any of the deaths could have been avoided.
In 2016, Port was handed a whole life term at the Old Bailey after being found guilty of the murders.
Following the murder of Anthony Walgate in June 2014, the so called 'Grindr-killer' would go on to kill 21-year-old Daniel Whitworth, as well as Gabriel Kovari, 22, and Jack Taylor, 25, during a 16-month period between June 2014 and September 2015.
Former Dartford Grammar student Daniel was killed by Port in 2014 after they met via the gay dating app Grindr.
Earlier in the hearing, Daniel's family paid tribute to their "pride and joy" and spoke of their pain over his death being treated as suicide.
After leaving school, Daniel attended Denton College in Gravesend, where he trained to become a chef.