Police in Australia have arrested a 49-year-old man for the alleged homophobic killing of American mathematician Scott Johnson, who fell to his death from a cliff near Manly’s North Head on the coast off Sydney some 32 years ago.
Scott Phillip White, who was a teenager at the time of the killing, was taken into custody and charged with Johnson’s murder Tuesday morning. He was denied bail and will appear in court Wednesday.
Johnson’s family had never believed an initial coroner’s report that their brother and son had committed suicide in December 1988, when his body was found at Blue Fish Point at the foot of a cliff that was a popular hangout for gay hookups. Johnson, who was openly gay, was pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics at the Australian National University and his family always believed his death was not by choice.
In 2005, Johnson’s brother Steve received a call from his brother’s former partner, Michael Noone, who told him about a spate of hate crimes in the same area where young gay men were being pushed off cliffs. Johnson told the Sydney Morning Herald that he realized at that moment that is likely what happened to his brother. “Maybe that’s what happened to Scottie,” he said he told Noones.
Johnson then reached out to authorities to begin what became a relentless campaign for the truth.
Johnson believes the initial inquiry was bungled by police who are alleged to have been trying to cover up a spate of gay hate crimes in the area at that time. His death was eventually the subject of three inquests, the first of which ruled suicide as the cause of death, the second of which was inconclusive, and the third led to White’s arrest.
The investigation stalled for years under Detective Chief Inspector Pamela Young until an exposé by ABC Lateline television in 2015. In it, she questioned why the case was being given priority and accused the police minister of “kowtowing” to the demands Johnson’s survivors led by his brother Steve.
Things started to turn after the television investigation, when coroner Michael Barnes reopened the case, finding that Johnson died because he was “pushed, hounded, or frightened” off the cliff. He said at the time that the original coroner did not take into consideration that Manly’s North Head was a known spot for gay hookups that attracted an increasing number of haters at the time of his death. The oversight was likely because police did not want the death of the American to be tied to what was becoming a problem across Australia. “I am of the view it is very unlikely Scott took his own life,” Barnes said in 2015. “I am persuaded to the requisite standard that Scott died as a result of a gay hate attack.”
Young was then removed from the case and replaced in 2018 by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans, who immediately offered a $1 million reward for information about that fateful night. Johnson’s brother Steve, himself a millionaire, then matched the reward, raising it to $2 million. It is not clear if the reward has been claimed or what forensic evidence led authorities to arrest White
Johnson’s brother Steve told the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday that Scott would be “pleased to see how far the gay community has come toward living openly and freely.”
Johnson also thanked the “many dozens of people in the U.S. and Australia who worked hard for justice for Scott not only for this wonderful human being whose life ended too soon but because Scott died violently as so many other gay men did in the 1980s and ’90s in a world full of anti-gay prejudice and hatred.” He added, “All the men who died need a voice and in some small way I hope Scott has provided it.”
Johnson thanked the Australian authorities for their work and what he called “this near-miracle bringing justice today to my brother Scott, who died at the cliffs of North Head in Manly more than 31 years ago,” Johnson said. “Especially while grappling with this terrible pandemic, [Detective] Yeomans and his team managed an heroic feat building this case and apprehending Scott’s alleged killer. Scott’s family and I deeply appreciate their commitment to finding justice for Scott Johnson.”