Four Lives: True story behind harrowing Sheridan Smith drama

The three-part series depicts a mother's fight for justice.

Sheridan Smith in BBC drama Four Lives

*This article contains themes that some readers may find upsetting.*

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BBC One drama Four Lives tells the true story of the four young men who were murdered by Stephen Port, a killer who found his victims on the gay dating app Grindr.

Writer Neil McKay and executive producer Jeff Pope are behind the three-part miniseries, having previously collaborated on fellow factual dramas See No Evil: The Moors Murders, Appropriate Adult and The Moorside.

The project aims to keep the focus primarily on the victims and their loved ones, with Port himself (portrayed by Stephen Merchant) being a secondary character in the story.

It also draws attention to how authorities mishandled these linked cases, with an inquest jury recently concluding that failings by the Metropolitan Police “probably” contributed to the deaths of Port’s final three victims.

Read More: Meet the cast of BBC One’s true-crime drama Four Lives

Four Lives true story explained

The murder of Anthony Walgate

Anthony (TIM PRESTON) in Four Lives
Tim Preston portrays Anthony Walgate in Four Lives
BBC/ITV Studios/Aimee Spinks

Fashion student Anthony Walgate, 23, who had occasionally worked as an escort for some extra money, was contacted by Port in June 2014, with a message offering him £800 for a single overnight job.

While there, Port poisoned him with a fatal overdose of the “date rape” drug GHB, later moving him to just outside his apartment building and calling an ambulance.

By the time help arrived, Anthony was already dead.

The call was traced back to Port, who initially denied having any knowledge of how Anthony got there, but admitted one week later that the two had met for sex.

He falsely claimed that Anthony himself had administered the drug during the encounter, with this radically altered statement seeing him arrested for perverting the course of justice – but released on bail.

Matters which would later be scrutinised in the inquest included how the bruising underneath Anthony’s arms was not considered signs of a possible assault, while an incriminating laptop seized from Port’s flat was not submitted to forensic analysis for another 10 months.

From the beginning, the police story that Anthony had died of an overdose didn’t add up to his mother, Sarah Sak, who believed that her son had actually been murdered.

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In addition, the tragic news was broken to Anthony’s father, Thomas, in a careless fashion, with an officer mistakenly telling him that his brother had died.

The murder of Gabriel Kovari

Gabriel (JAKUB SVEC) in Four Lives
Jakub Svec portrays Gabriel Kovari in Four Lives
BBC/ITV Studios/Ben Blackall

Port’s next victim was Slovakian national Gabriel Kovari, 22, who was found dead in August 2014 by a local dog walker in St Margaret’s Churchyard, where he had been propped up against a wall.

Again, the cause of death had been a fatal overdose of GHB, but no connection was made between himself and Anthony, despite their bodies being discovered in close proximity – and in the vicinity of Port’s flat.

The death was considered unexplained, but not suspicious, with Gabriel’s friend John Pape accusing the Met Police of “institutionalised homophobia”, after his efforts to provide information that might link the incidents went ignored.

The Met Police denies this claim, and homophobia was not an issue for consideration by the jury at the later inquest.

Gabriel was relatively new to London and had been staying with Port, who he’d met online, as a temporary solution before finding a more stable home.

Police failed to follow up on a message Gabriel had sent to a friend explaining that he was living at Port’s address, while the Kovari family’s designated liaison officer admitted in an inquest that she had never contacted them.

The murder of Daniel Whitworth

Daniel (LEO FLANAGAN), Ricky (ROBERT EMMS) in Four Lives
Leo Flanagan portrays Daniel Whitworth and Robert Emms portrays Ricky Waumsley in Four Lives
BBC/ITV Studios/Aimee Spinks

A mere three weeks later, Port’s third victim Daniel Whitworth, 21, was found in the same Churchyard by the very same dog walker, having also died from a fatal overdose of GHB.

Again, his death was not ruled suspicious, as his body was found with a fake suicide note – penned by Port – claiming that Daniel had accidentally caused Gabriel’s death and taken his own life out of guilt.

Of course, this was a complete falsehood made up by Port, but the forgery was not discovered until later as the handwriting on the note was not verified through proper procedure.

More missed evidence raised during the inquest includes forensic tests that were not carried out on the bedsheet that Daniel was found in and phone data proving that he was not in Barking on the night of Gabriel’s death.

Daniel’s stepmother Mandy and father Adam have heavily criticised the investigation, while his long-term partner Ricky Waumsley claimed he was “pushed out” and “dismissed” by detectives on the case.

The murder of Jack Taylor

Donna (JAIME WINSTONE), Jack (PADDY ROWAN), Jenny (STEPHANIE HYAM) in Four Lives
Jaime Winstone as Donna, Paddy Rowan as Jack, and Stephanie Hyam as Jenny in Four Lives

Port took the life of his fourth and final victim in September 2015, shortly after serving three months of an eight-month sentence for perverting the course of justice.

Jack Taylor, 25, was also found in the vicinity of St Margaret’s Churchyard, having also died from a drug overdose, yet his death too was initially declared non-suspicious.

The inspector who led the investigation later said that neither of the two detectives who attended the crime scene with him had informed him of the similarities between Jack’s death and those of three other young men in the area.

Jack’s family insisted that his death was not an overdose as he was an aspiring police officer and firmly anti-drugs, with sisters Donna and Jenny providing authorities with information that linked the four deaths, but claiming it was not taken seriously.

How was murderer Stephen Port caught?

Stephen Merchant as Stephen Port in Four Lives
Stephen Merchant as Stephen Port in Four Lives
BBC/ITV Studios/Britbox

Ten days after Jack was found dead, a parks officer who had no prior experience with investigatory work visited the family to look into their concerns.

Eventually, he found CCTV footage from Barking train station that showed Jack with a man later identified as Port, who was arrested on suspicion of causing all four deaths in October 2015.

Following an inquest that ruled that failings by the Met Police “probably” contributed to the deaths of Port’s final three victims, Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball made a formal apology.

“An inquest jury has determined that Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor were unlawfully killed,” she began.

“They have also found that the deaths of three of those young men – Gabriel, Daniel and Jack – could probably have been prevented had the initial police responses and investigations been better.

“It is a devastating finding,” Ball continued. “Our thoughts are with everybody who loved these young men. We are so sorry for their loss and we’re also deeply sorry that there were failings in the police investigations and the responses to their murders.”

She added: “I give my own, and the Met’s, heartfelt apologies. All those who loved Anthony and Gabriel and Daniel and Jack expected a thorough and professional police investigation into their deaths, and it’s a great sadness for me and for everybody at the Met that this didn’t happen.”

Four Lives premiered on BBC One at 9pm on Monday 3rd January 2022 with all episodes now available as a box set on BBC iPlayer.

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