How a Clever Killer Was Caught
A serial killer who staged a crime almost got away with murder.
Posted Feb 15, 2019
On a mid-September morning in 2014, a dog walker discovered the corpse of twenty-one-year-old Daniel Whitworth propped up against a wall just inside an East London cemetery. Clutched in his hand was a scrap of paper—a suicide note. He described his despondency over the death of Gabriel Kovari, whose body this same dog walker had found three weeks earlier in the same place, same position. Whitworth had stated that he was responsible. How police failed to observe the contrived nature of his death and suspect the possibility that the note was fake was part of a series of missteps that nearly let a killer go free.
True crime writer Alan R. Warren documents the case in a new ebook, The Grindr Serial Killer, which is featured in a series that focuses on British serial killers. He adds a transcript from the interrogation, shows points of deception by the suspect, and includes several prison letters, as well as court proceedings.
I use this case in my course Psychological Sleuthing, which focuses on the psychology of death investigation, because it illustrates bias that impairs investigations. Warren focuses quite a bit on how investigators dropped the ball.
There appears to have been resistance to devoting police resources to deaths involving gay men, especially those that included substance abuse. Assumptions were made and victims were dismissed. Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon to find overdose victims in this area. Some of the relatives of these men reported police indifference and some witnesses said they'd never been questioned.
Yet several red flags about these two victims should have signaled the need for a full investigation. Most glaring was the alleged suicide note in Whitworth’s hand, which included an odd reference to not blaming “the guy I was with last night.”
The police clearly need better training in suicidology. A suicide note that mentions another person, especially in a positive light—don’t blame him or her—often points to a person of interest. (I discussed more about notes and staging in an earlier blog here.) The police did ask the parents of Whitworth whether the note was his handwriting. Initially, they weren’t sure, but then said no. Somehow, this response got twisted into a “yes.” The police also failed to check if the two decedents even knew each other, and did not look into why there was bruising on Whitworth's body that indicated handling. They took the note at face value.
Back to the case. Both had died from an overdose of the date-rape sedative, GHB. In the note, Whitworth “admitted” that he’d injected Kovari during sex to enhance their experience. The death had been an accident, but Whitworth was so overcome that he thought suicide was his only option.
For police, this meant two cases closed. Investigation was minimal, despite another body found not far away in the doorway of an apartment building earlier that year (which Port himself had called in while pretending to be a concerned passer-by). To them, it was open-and-shut. Except that these incidents were not as obvious as they seemed.
One study suggests the police make a correct analysis of suicide notes on the level of chance. They don’t know what differentiates an authentic note from a simulated note used in a staged suicide. Snook & Mercer (2010) had thirty-six officers read thirty suicide notes (actual vs. simulated). The subjects tended to make quick decisions based on mental shortcuts. Often, their mistakes were based on erroneous notions about suicide. If we throw in bias, we can see why this investigation had so many holes.
Only superficially trained in suicide evaluation, cops tend to accept cultural myths. They don’t know how to spot differences between genuine and non-genuine suicide notes. But at the very least, the investigation of a death incident should include an analysis of victim behavior and mental state. The police did a little of this, but if Warren is right, not much.
In fact, as Warren notes, Whitworth had not killed Kolvari, accidentally or otherwise. He had also not committed suicide. Instead, a man named Stephen Port had met both victims, injected them, and killed both, writing the staged suicide note. He nearly got away with it except that the sisters of another “accidental overdose victim” insisted that CCTV footage of their brother with an unidentified man be made public. On their own initiative, the police would not have followed up on this rather obvious lead. Credit goes to the sisters.
A deeper investigation would have documented the oddities, spotted potential links, and possibly investigated Port as a tenant in that building who was also implicated in other cases. Maybe one life, at least, could have been saved.
In 2016, Port was convicted of all four murders, along with the sexual assaults of seven other men. The trial records that Warren includes provide the opportunity to hear from the living victims of his sexual assaults. Despite Port’s protests and the things he writes in his letters to a correspondent, his excuses and deflections look pretty lame. He blames the victims and thinks the charges against him are unjust.
On a more positive note, police are now investigating 58 cases involving an overdose of GHB.
This case got a lot of press and continues to be in the news. Warren organizes the information, highlights police error and brings attention to the way a criminal can exploit investigative negligence. He also provides more about Port’s background than readers might find in news accounts.
Snook, B., & Mercer, J. (2010). Modelling police officers’ judgments of the veracity of suicide notes. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 52(1), 79-95.
Ramsland, K. (2018). The Psychology of death investigations: Behavioral analysis for psychological autopsy and criminal profiling. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.