by ALEC SMART
A 49-year-old man has been arrested for the 1988 gay-hate murder of Scott Johnson, whose naked body was found on a rock ledge at the base of a cliff near Manly on Sydney’s North Shore.
On 10 Dec 1988, the 27-year-old American was discovered by a 13-year-old boy and two spear fishermen on a rock ledge at the base of Blue Fish Point, two days after he was last seen alive. He had plummeted 50 metres from the cliff top above – an isolated bush-enshrouded region half way between North Head, at the mouth of Sydney Harbour, and Manly’s Shelly Beach.
The precipice from which Scott fell is accessed by a sandy coastal track that snakes through dense forest around abandoned WWII concrete artillery bunkers near the North Head Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Blue Fish Point is sheltered behind a three-metre high sandstone wall that runs its length and obscures the headland from the path behind – and potential witnesses. Entry is obtained through a hole in the wall.
Over three decades after the tragedy, around 08.30 on the morning of 12 May 2020, detectives from Strike Force Welsford, the team established by NSW Police to investigate Johnson’s murder, arrested prime suspect Scott White in Lane Cove. Thereafter a search warrant was executed on his home nearby and a forensic examination of the original murder site.
White was taken to Chatswood Police Station and, later in the day, charged with murder and refused bail.
A neighbour, Natalie Walster, told ABC News that White, whom she described as a ‘loner’, anticipated the arrest, after revealing to her he was under suspicion earlier this year.
“He just said ‘I’ve got two detectives on my case about a murder that happened in the 80s,’” she said. “’But I didn’t do it. Don’t have it in me’.”
‘One particular individual’
It’s not known yet whether the arrest was made as a result of the reward offered for anyone with knowledge on Scott Johnson’s murder that would lead to a conviction. The NSW Govt increased the reward from $100,000 to $1 million in December 2018, and Johnson’s brother Steve, a former vice-president at internet company AOL, later doubled it to $2 million on 9 March 2020.
Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans, Strike Force Welsford lead investigator, announced shortly after the reward was increased in March that the investigation had narrowed its focus to one “particular individual.”
“One of our greatest challenges has been facing a wall of silence, but we are starting to break through,” he reassured the public. “At this time, we are currently following some very specific lines of inquiry – essentially, we believe that given the culture of gay hate at that time, the events surrounding Scott’s death would have likely been bragged about.
“This means there are two potential groups with information: those who were involved and those they told. Now is the time for them – or anyone who has information – to come forward.”
At the time of his death, Scott Johnson, a maths prodigy from the USA, was a graduate student who had recently submitted his dissertation in mathematics for the PHD he was studying at the Australian National University in Canberra. He had already achieved excellent academic grades from the University of California and the University of Cambridge in the USA and, like the familiar joke that rocket science is the domain of the brilliant, had actually worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Scott had also assisted his brother Steve in developing the world’s first algorithm that made it possible to send photos digitally online, which Steve commercialised to become a wealthy and leading pioneer in internet development.
Scott was also a keen mountain climber and long-distance runner, and neither smoked nor drank. He had no history of depression or mental illness, and an autopsy revealed he was not HIV positive. Although no suicide note was found, Scott’s clothes were discovered neatly folded at the top of Blue Fish Point, 10 metres from the edge, along with some personal items and a bus ticket from Lane Cove, where the 27-year-old American mathematician had been staying.
Police haven’t revealed whether there is a link between the fact that Scott Johnson was staying in Lane Cove at the time of his disappearance and that murder suspect Scott White currently resides in Lane Cove.
White would have been 17 at the time the murder was committed, a decade younger than the quietly-spoken American.
Only two legal cases in Australia’s history have convened three separate coronial inquests to examine new facts and forensic revelations: Azaria Chamberlain (the baby taken by a dingo at Uluru) and Scott Johnson’s. The three inquests into Mr Johnson’s death recorded three very different verdicts.
The initial investigation by Manly Police proclaimed there was no evidence Johnson was murdered. NSW Police wrongly advised the first coroner – whether through malice or ignorance is not clear – that the area around Blue Fish Point was not a gay ‘beat’ (a discreet meeting spot for homosexual men).
Constable Troy Hardie, a Manly police officer who partially oversaw the case in 1988, concluded there were “no suspicious circumstances.” Indeed, within 24 hours of the body being found, investigating officers wrote ‘NFA’ – No Further Action – on the police occurrence pad, and maintained that view thereafter, despite suspicions raised by Johnson’s family and associates who insisted Scott wasn’t suicidal.
During the inquest held at Glebe Coroners’ Court just three months after Scott’s death, on March 16 1989, Constable Hardie told the NSW State Coroner, Derrick Hand, “There was no evidence of any foul play, so I believed it was suicide.”
It’s likely that Scott’s then-boyfriend, Michael Noone, played a part in influencing Manly Police that Scott was suicidal. He told police that Scott had rung him in June 1988 from America, apologising for having an affair with a stranger and claimed Scott was so wracked with guilt he considered jumping of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Noone, who has always been estranged from Scott’s brother Steve, also told police that Scott feared he might have contracted AIDS through his liaison with the stranger.
NSW State Coroner Hand accepted a presentation by the head of the police investigation, Detective Sergeant Doreen Cruickshank, that because Scott Johnson’s clothes were folded neatly and there was no obvious sign of a struggle, it suggested he had a premeditated plan to jump.
Coroner Hand then issued the finding that Johnson ended his own life.
And yet professional scepticism about Scott’s ‘suicide’ began from the outset. Dr Johan Duflou, who performed the autopsy on Scott’s body, told the first inquest in Glebe that Scott’s fall was so disfiguring that the police officers’ insistence there were no ‘defence wounds’ was forensically inaccurate. “There was nothing to suggest one way or another – suicide, accident or homicide.”
Scott’s brother Steve was dismissive of the ‘suicide’ explanation. He pointed out to police the mere fact his brother was found naked at the base of the cliff, when people who take their own life are not known for undressing first, suggested strongly it was otherwise. He began researching the case, including hiring an investigative journalist, ex-Newsweek writer Daniel Glick, in 2007, eventually spending over a million dollars to uncover aspects that the NSW Police had either ignored or overlooked.
In 2005, the revelation that an inquest into the deaths of three young men in the 1980s found that they, too, had mysteriously fallen from sea cliffs, later confirmed as victims of gangs of gay-bashers, provoked Steve to begin lobbying to get his brother’s case reopened.
This led to a second inquest in 2012 that eventually overturned the ‘suicide’ explanation and, although it dismissed the likelihood Scott took his own life, recorded an open verdict.
On 12 Feb 2013 the NSW Police Force Unsolved Homicide Team set up a new investigative unit, Strike Force Macnamir, to investigate gay-hate crimes, of which there were many bashings and murders, especially along Sydney’s beach-side suburbs, throughout the 1980s-90s.
Detective Chief Inspector Pamela Young, the Unsolved Homicide Team investigator who headed the 2013 operation in the wake of the second inquiry into Scott’s death, prepared a 445-page report for the Coroner’s Court in which she uncovered no evidence to support that Scott Johnson was murdered.
The report highlighted 35 other deaths caused by falls around the North Head area near Blue Fish Point, five accidental, the rest suicides, and concluded that Johnson was another depressed man (28 of the fatalities were men) who’d taken his own life.
Later criticised for sloppy investigative work, Young rejected the likelihood that gay men were set upon by thugs at Blue Fish Point because no victims come forward to say they were bashed and she could find no records of hate crimes at nearby Manly Hospital. (The hospital is 1.3km from Blue Fish Point).
“Based on these realities,” Det. Young concluded, “it is not unreasonable to draw an inference that no crimes of personal violence occurred at the North Head gay beat and certainly none that required medical treatment.”
In 2015, NSW State Coroner, Michael Barnes, demanded the removal of Detective Chief Inspector Pamela Young from the stalled murder investigation after she accused former police minister Mike Gallacher of “kowtowing” to the demands of Scott’s brother Steve and reprised the ‘Scott committed suicide’ theory during an ABC Lateline television interview. DCI Young was stood down from the investigation.
(In late 2017, after she was medically discharged, Ms Young sued NSW Police claiming severe post-traumatic stress disorder and that they were negligent in letting her head the Scott Johnson investigation and appear on Lateline).
And yet, despite NSW Police denials, gay bashings and murders were particularly vicious and on the increase during the 1980s-1990s, suggesting police officers were either reluctant to investigate or complicit in the attacks. In fact a vehicle that was witnessed at the scene of a vicious gay bashing in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs in 1989 in which the assailants drove off, was later identified as an unmarked police car, but the perpetrators were never brought to justice.
For example, on 15 December 1988, a week after Scott’s death, 29-year-old Ronald Currie was found in a toilet block in North Manly. He’d been beaten to death. Along the Northern Beaches, multiple reports of gay bashings were being recorded in the Manly Daily regional newspaper.
Less than a year later, in November 1989, the body of a 31-year-old gay barman, John Russell, was found at the base of a cliff on the Bondi side of Marks Park. Within a few weeks another gay man was bashed in Bondi, and although he managed to escape his attackers, he revealed that his attackers – likely the notorious ‘Bondi Boys’ had threatened to hurl him over the cliff. “You’re going over the side, you poofter!” was the chilling threat.
Another gay man, TV newsreader Ross Warren, disappeared in the same cliff area at Marks Park, Tamarama, a known gay beat, around the same time. His body was never found, likely eaten by sharks.
A 2018 Strike Force Parrabell NSW Police review of 88 suspicious deaths between 1976 and 2000 revealed 27 men were probably murdered because of their homosexuality, with cases peaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Up to 20 assaults took place each day.
According to Australian Govt-monitored National Homicide Monitoring Program, there were 37 male victims of gay-hate related homicide between 1 July 1989 and 30 June 1999.
However, the number is probably higher. Criminologist Stephen Tomsen, who worked with NSW Police, claimed 74 gay murders took place between 1980 and 2000.
Yet victims of bashings were reluctant to seek police help, despite the fact that many of these assaults involved stabbings, strangulation, bludgeoning, shooting, sexual assaults and frenzied attacks. Gordon Sharp, a gay man who regularly visited the Blue Fish Point beat where Scott Johnson’s life was tragically ended, explained why to the third inquest at Glebe Coroner’s Court in June 2017.
“Occasionally the word would go up, ‘bashers!’ You’d hear a scream go up, you would grab your kit and dash off. No one saw the value of reporting to the police because you were likely to get another smacking from police.”
On 14 June 2017 at the third inquest into Scott Johnson’s death, Scott’s ex-boyfriend, Michael Noone again repeated his much-derided claim that Scott was suicidal.
“He was convinced that he had either contracted AIDS or exposed himself to a virus and he was deeply remorseful and decided to do away with himself by jumping off Golden Gate Bridge,” Noone insisted. “But when he got there, he found that his muscles froze over. He was effectively incapable of carrying out his intent. Scott was a person who set himself an extremely high standard, and when he himself fell short of those very high standards he went into a downward spiral of self-blame. Depression is the only way I can think of describing it. He turned in on himself.”
To counter this the Johnson family’s lawyer, John Agius SC, revealed to the court that a private investigation had identified five gangs that preyed upon gay men around Sydney’s east coast beaches over the decades of unsolved murders, including Blue Fish Point, and highlighted 50 people of interest as possible killers.
In Nov 2017 NSW State Coroner, Michael Barnes, dismissed the suicide theory outright and overturned the two previous Inquiry verdicts, declaring, “Mr Johnson fell from the cliff top as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual. I am of the view it is very unlikely Scott took his own life. I am persuaded to the requisite standard that Scott died as a result of a gay hate attack.”
Coroner Barnes was also highly critical of NSW Police. “Regrettably, those responsible for the initial investigation quickly jumped to conclusions without thoroughly and impartially examining all the facts. By the time numerous mistakes were recognised it was too late to properly test the evidence to find the truth.”
Perseverance through pain
It was largely through the perseverance of Scott’s brother Steve that the case has remained active. In a video statement recorded from his home in USA on 12 May 2020 and released by NSW Police, Johnson heaped praise on those leading the inquiry into his brother’s murder and the arrest of a prime suspect.
“I’d like to start by thanking Commissioner Mick Fuller and lead investigator DCI Peter Yeomans for 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….
“Scott would be pleased to see how far the gay community has come toward living openly and freely…
“I hope the friends and families of the other dozens of other gay men who lost their lives during the 1980s and 90s find solace in what’s happened today, and I hope it opens the door to solve some of the other mysterious deaths of men who have not yet received justice.
“By doggedly pursuing Scott’s case, the NSW Police is telling the gay community – indeed, to everyone in Australia – that times have changed. A recognition that all of us deserve equal protection and justice under the law, and equal standing with each other without prejudice.
“This is of course very personal to me. Scott and I were very close. Our brother and two sisters loved Scott dearly. It’s a shame that our parents are not alive today to see justice done. They may rest more peacefully now, however. I deeply appreciate the effort by everyone who worked so hard to bring this good news today. Thank you.”