A man has opened up on his 30-year battle to convince police his brother was a victim of a gay hate crime after it was ruled he committed suicide by jumping off a cliff.
Scott Johnson, a Sydney-based American national, was found dead at the base of a cliff at Blue Fish Point, near Manly’s North Head, on December 10, 1988.
An inquest in 1989 found the 27-year-old maths genius and PhD student had committed suicide, while a second inquest in June 2012 was left open.
Scott’s death returned to court for a third inquest in 2017 and then-NSW Coroner Michael Barnes found he fell from the cliff ‘as a result of actual or threatened violence’ by an unidentified attacker who perceived him to be gay.
On May 12, 2020, Scott Phillip White, 49, was arrested at his home in Lane Cove, on Sydney’s lower north shore, and charged with murder.
Scott Johnson (left), a Sydney-based American national, was found at the base of a cliff at Blue Fish Point, near Manly’s North Head, on December 10, 1988. His brother Steve (right) spent decades fighting for justice
At a third inquest in 2017, the Coroner found Scott (pictured) fell from the cliff ‘as a result of actual or threatened violence’ by an unidentified attacker who perceived him to be gay
The fight for justice – which has stretched more than three decades – was led by his brother Steve, who could not accept Scott had taken his own life.
Steve arrived in Sydney about 36 hours after he was notified of Scott’s death and was almost immediately advised his brother died from suicide.
‘It was clear when I got to the police station, the Manly police station, that the police already assumed it was a suicide,’ Steve told ABC’s Australian Story.
‘And I said, ”Impossible”. He’d just finished his PhD that he’d been working on for five years.’
In the years that followed, Steve was ‘stonewalled’ by police.
At the time of Scott’s death, Steve was a graduate student. But after selling an idea to America Online and earning a large fortune, Steve was eventually able to properly investigate his brother’s death.
About 20 years after Scott’s death, Steve could put money into the resources for his investigation. He hired an investigative journalist and support grew from there.
‘There was a lot of work to do, and so, over time, the team grew because people wanted to help. We called ourselves ”Team Scott”,’ Steve said.
On May 12, 2020, Scott Phillip White was arrested at his home in Lane Cove, on Sydney’s lower north shore, and charged with murder
‘There were lawyers, there were journalists, and gradually we started to get some attention on my brother’s case.’
Scott died a short four years after homosexuality was decriminalised in Australia but prejudices against the queer community remained.
Around the same time as Scott’s death, other gay men had been thrown off cliffs at gay beats in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
Gay beats were places where queer men would meet for sex.
Upon learning of the similarity in the crimes, Steve and his team began to investigate if Blue Fish Point was a well-known gay beat.
They think Scott probably heard about the gay beat through his friends and was looking to enjoy himself at Sydney Harbour after finishing his PhD.
The fight for justice – which has stretched more than three decades – was led by his brother Steve, who could not accept Scott had taken his own life
Pictured: Police search the headland near Manly following the arrest in connection to Scott’s death
‘Took off his clothes, laid down, and so somebody probably walked up to Scott while he was there and proposed sex, proposed something,’ Steve said.
Scott’s body was found naked at the base of the cliff, while his clothes were folded neatly at the top.
Through Steve’s quest for answers, a second inquest was launched in 2012. The suicide was overturned and the court returned an open finding.
‘My team, or gang of friends now, group-hugged in the court. Lots of tears. And we went out to celebrate,’ Steve said.
In 2013, NSW Police announced a $100,000 reward to for information into Scott’s death.
‘But after a few months of investigation, they came to me and said that they were done with the investigation and that no more could be done,’ Steve said.
Scott’s body was found naked at the base of the cliff, while his clothes were folded neatly at the top
Steve (pictured) leaves the Coroners Court after the third inquest in 2017. ‘I am frustrated and dismayed that it took 12 years to finally get a ruling that Scott was killed,’ Steve told reporters outside court
Steve and his team continued to work behind the scenes and the NSW Coroner’s Court launched a third inquest in 2017.
The inquest found Scott was either pushed, frightened or chased off the cliff.
‘I am frustrated and dismayed that it took 12 years to finally get a ruling that Scott was killed,’ Steve told reporters outside court at the time.
‘It’s been many years working together on this.’
A $1million reward for information leading to an arrest was established in December 2018. Steve said he would match the $1million reward.
‘With a reward of up to $2million on the table, I am hoping that Scott will finally get justice,’ Steve said in a statement in March.
White was arrested in May and NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller phoned Steve to update him on the case.
White was arrested in May (pictured) and NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller phoned Steve to update him on the case
Steve said the arrest marked ‘a very emotional day’ in a video message shared by police
‘Making that phone call this morning is a career highlight – Steve has fought so hard for so many years, and it has been an honour be part of his fight for justice,’ Commissioner Fuller said.
‘While we have a long way to go in the legal process, it must be acknowledged that if it wasn’t for the determination of the Johnson family, which inspired me and the Strike Force Welsford team, we wouldn’t be where we are today.’
Steve said it was ‘a very emotional day’ in a video message shared by police.
‘It’s emotional for me, it’s emotional for my family, my two sisters and my brother who love Scott dearly, my wife and my three kids who never got to know their uncle but admire him,’ he told the camera.
‘Emotional for the gay community. For whom, Scott had come to symbolise the many dozens of other gay men who lost their lives in the 1980s and 90s in a world full of anti-gay prejudice and hatred.’
Steve said it was ‘remarkable’ authorities were able to apprehend the alleged killer during the coronavirus pandemic.
Police conduct a search of a headland on May 12 after an arrest was made in connection with Scott’s death
The arrest proved ‘times have changed’ and it recognises ‘that all of us deserve equal protection and justice under the law’, Steve added.
He said his brother would be ‘very happy’ to see how far the gay community has come in 30 years.
‘I hope the friends and families of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what’s happened today,’ Steve said.
‘I hope it opens the door to resolve the other mysterious deaths of men who have not yet received justice.
‘Again, on behalf of my family, I want to thank everyone that has worked so hard over the years to bring this great news today.
‘Particular at a time during this pandemic when we all need to know that every single life matters.’
Steve (pictured) said his brother would be ‘very happy’ to see how far the gay community has come in 30 years