Scott Johnson was just 27-years-old when his naked body was found at the bottom of a cliff in New South Wales, Australia in December 1988.
Johnson was an American PHD student who had moved to Australia in 1986 to be with his partner, Michael Noon. The two had met while studying at Cambridge in England and Scott was aiming to get residency before he was tragically found dead.
Johnson’s clothes were found neatly folded around 10 meters from the cliffs edge and police initially ruled the death a suicide. The victim’s family did not believe the cause of death for a second and campaigned endlessly for the case to be reopened and looked at again. They argued that the death was suspicious and Scott Johnsons brother, Steve, said he found the idea of Scott committing suicide “inconceivable”. He argued that his brother was happy in Australia and added that he was so close to finishing his PHD at the Australian National University in Canberra that it just did not make sense.
North Head Cliffs in Manly, where Scott Johnson was found dead, was known as a meeting point for gay men in the eighties and there was also said to be active homophobic gangs in Sydney around the same time. The gangs would threaten, and harm gay men and it is believed they killed an estimate of 80 gay men, many of whom were thrown or pushed from cliffs.
Steve Johnson found out about the groups in 2005 after he heard about a string of deaths involving gay men around Bondi beach. The police were not interested in his theory that his brother had died at the hands of a gang who targeted homosexual men, so he hired an investigator of his own and was informed that there had been many reported cases of these gangs looking for victims to assault in the eighties. The gangs were known to be loud and proud about the attacks and Steve hoped that someone who may have heard something about his brother’s death in 1988 would come forward. Part of the reason the gangs likely felt confident to boast of their crimes is because police did not take hate-crimes against the gay community seriously at the time. The gangs likely felt confident that their assaults would never be reported to authorities.
An article in the Sydney Morning Herald describes a conversation involving an inmate who used to be part of one of the groups, the Alexandria eight, wherein disturbing details about what exactly the Sydney based homophobic groups would do on their “hunts” are revealed. According to the article there would be groups, sometimes as large as 30, who hunted down or lured gay males and beat them within an inch of their lives, or to death, or sent them “cliff jumping”. The inmate laughs and talks about how much fun it was and how it was even more entertaining when their victim would plead for his life and compared the crimes to sport and explained how he collected the articles about the cases he was involved in.
Homosexuality had only been decriminalised two years before Scott Johnson moved there. One of the officers working his case allegedly asked the victims sister if she “knew he was a poofter” and asked her if she still loved him.
It is no mystery as to why crimes against the gay community were massively under-reported at the time.
In 2017 the case was looked at again and a coroner ruled that Scott Johnson had not committed suicide but had fallen from the cliff in the face of threatened or actual violence in a gay-hate related attack.
The New South Wales police offered a $1 million reward for anyone who could provide information leading to the victim’s killer and Steve doubled it, hoping that the staggering $2 million reward would entice anyone with information to come forward.
Finally, in May 2020, 32 years after Johnson was found dead, police made an arrest.
49-year-old Scott Phillip White was arrested at his Sydney home in Lane Cove on the lower north shore and charged with the murder of Scott Johnson in 1988. White, who would have been a teenager at the time of the crime, is thought to have met Johnson at a hotel before going with him to Blue Fish point. Johnson is thought to have undressed himself and folded his clothes before being pushed off the cliff by White. Reports about the case imply that Scott Price lured the victim with the intention of causing him harm or death.
Mick Fuller, commissioner for New South Wales Police, was finally able to call Steve Johnson and deliver the good news that the suspect had been apprehended. In a statement about the arrest Steve said: “I hope the friends and families of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what’s happened today and hope it opens the door to resolve some of the other mysterious deaths of men who have not yet received justice.”
Fuller apologised to the gay community in Sydney for the lack of police support saying: “I do think the plight of young gay men in Sydney, and probably around the world, was a very difficult one and not only were they let down by police, they were let down by the community and probably the media”. Fuller also added that he felt embarrassed by how long it took to make the arrest and that the perpetrator had been walking free for over three decades.
Steve hopes that the NSW police will investigate the other murders of homosexual men in the area at the time and bring their killers to justice.