After 34 years, justice for Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson, pictured, was pushed off a Sydney cliff in a 1988 gay hate crime. Photo: Justice for Scott Johnson/Facebook.

A Sydney man has admitted to murdering US citizen Scott Johnson in a 1988 gay hate crime, bringing relief to Mr Johnson’s family, who never gave up on obtaining justice. Peter Hackney reports.

Almost three-and-a-half decades after US national Scott Johnson was found dead at the base of a cliff in Manly, Sydney man Scott White was convicted of his murder this afternoon after admitting to the crime.

The death Mr Johnson, who was aged 27 when his body was found at the foot of the North Head cliffs in December 1988, was initially deemed a suicide by NSW Police, which had a reputation for sweeping gay hate crimes under the carpet.

However, the family of mathematician and PhD candidate Mr Johnson and many in the gay community never believed the verdict, continually pushing for further investigations.

After the initial suicide verdict, a 1989 inquest upheld the suicide finding, however a second inquest in 2012 returned an open verdict. In 2017, a third inquest ruled that Mr Johnson had fallen victim to a gay hate crime at the cliffs, which were known to be a gay meeting place.

All the while, Mr Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson – a wealthy American tech entrepreneur – relentlessly pursued justice and reportedly spent up to $1million on a private investigator to prove the death was the result of foul play.

Steve, who arrived in Sydney from the US 36 hours after his brother’s death, told ABC TV’s Australian Story in 2020: “It was clear when I got to … the Manly Police Station, that the police already assumed it was a suicide. And I said, ‘Impossible.’ He’d just finished his PhD that he’d been working on for five years.”

Following the third inquest, a $1million reward was offered by NSW Police in December 2018 for information leading to a conviction.

This was later doubled to $2million, due to an additional reward offered by Steve.

In May, 2020, NSW Police officers arrested Scott White at his Lane Cove apartment for the crime, after receiving a tip-off.

Mr White pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charge of murder last year – but on Monday, he entered a guilty plea, which his lawyer tried to have withdrawn the following day.

It is understood his barrister tried to argue White was not fit to make the admission, reported ABC News.

However, the NSW Supreme Court rejected that today and convicted him of murder.

Steve Johnson’s reaction

Speaking about the long road to justice, Steve Johnson said proving his brother’s death was a homicide “wasn’t easy” but that his faith had now been “restored”.

“I think primarily I’m feeling relief and I am thinking about my brother and that a lot of people cared about him to bring this result today,” he said.

He said the Johnson family were grateful a trial would be avoided and thanked former NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller for appointing “damn good people” to investigate his brother’s death.

“[We’re] greatly relieved that the accused found it in his soul to confess and plead guilty and put an end to this, so I’m very happy about that.”

Steve said he had been “remarkably close” with Scott, who was his “best friend” and a “proud gay man”.

Steve Johnson (left) with his late brother Scott in 1988. Photo: Justice for Scott Johnson/Facebook.

Many more gay hate murders unsolved

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, more than 80 gay men disappeared or were murdered in NSW, many at known  gay ‘beats’ in Sydney.

Steve Johnson said there was still much more work to do, to bring closure and justice to scores of families.

“They also deserve justice and their families deserve answers,” he said.

“I hope this serves as a model for the [inquiry] that’s getting set to begin to investigate the other dozens of deaths of gay men.”

Expressing hope that justice would be delivered to the families, he said: “This should give them extraordinary hope that it’s possible to solve some of these crimes at this distance of time.”

Anyone with information on unsolved crimes can contact Crime Stoppers confidentially on 1800 333 000 or online at https://nsw.crimestoppers.com.au.

Peter Hackney is the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Sentinel.