On the 10th of December 1988, Scott Russell Johnson was found dead at the bottom of a cliff at Blue Fish Point in North Head, New South Wales. He was lying naked on jagged rocks at the bottom of a steep slope. His clothes were found in a pile at the edge of the cliff.
First impressions led police to determine his death was a suicide. However, his family didn’t agree with this assumption and demanded an in-depth investigation. It’s been three long decades, but justice has finally prevailed in Johnson’s homicide case.
In 2022, a man by the name of Scott White was finally charged with homicide and sentenced to 12 years and seven months for the murder of Johnson. White, now 51 years old, pleaded guilty to the murder of Johnson. When the atrocious crime was committed in 1988, White was only 18 years old.
Scott Johnson was an American mathematician from Los Angeles who had moved to Australia in 1986 after his studies in California and Cambridge. He lived with his partner, musicologist Michael Noone, in Canberra. Johnson was studying at the Australian National University. The university posthumously awarded him his Ph.D.
In 1988, White was homeless and was patronizing a local bar on the 8th of December in Manly when he met 27-year-old Johnson. After visiting at the bar, the two traveled to North Head cliffs together. It was a popular hangout spot for the gay community. According to White, the two got into an argument and Johnson accidentally fell off of the side of the cliff.
For so many years, Johnson’s death had been treated as a suicide. Now finally the truth has been revealed. Steve Johnson, the victim’s brother and best friend, would prove to be instrumental in getting justice for Scott and he spent the next 30 years keeping his brother’s memory alive. He fought hard to get Johnson’s case reopened and reevaluated and was never convinced that his brother had committed suicide.
Syndey, Australia in the 1980s and 90s was not a safe place for gay men. It was discovered that these men were frequently pushed or forced off of cliffs to their deaths simply because of their sexual orientation.
It is estimated that approximately 80 gay men have been murdered in the area; many of them were pushed off of cliffs. At the time, hostility toward the gay community was rising and the police refused to investigate the deaths, ruling a majority of them as suicides.
In 1989, the coroner that performed Dr. Johnson’s autopsy determined that he had committed suicide by jumping off of the cliff, but a second autopsy was done in 2012 and the determination was that his death is unexplainable, finding evidence of head injuries on the body. The victim’s family posted a 2-million-dollar reward for information related to their loved one's suspicious death.
In 2019, Scott White’s ex-wife told investigators that her then-husband had boasted about beating up gay men and said he believed that “the only good gay man was a dead gay man.” She testified in court that White had claimed Johnson ran off the edge of the cliff.
However, the judge ruled that because of the coroner’s evidence that Dr. Johnson had been struck in the head, it was likely he had been pushed to his death. Homophobia was the suspected motive for the murder. White eventually admitted he was gay and had been hiding it from friends and family.
White finally confessed in 2020, saying “I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge.” He pleaded guilty to murder. The motive was assumed to be “self-loathing” as White himself was also gay but had not yet come out as such at the time he killed Johnson.
White’s lawyers are appealing his conviction. They are hoping for a trial by jury and an acquittal of his murder charge.
Johnson’s brother, Steve, made a statement after the arrest of his brother’s killer in May of 2020: “This is a very emotional day, he was my best friend and he really needed me to do this. I hope the family and friends of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what’s happened today.”
Scott’s sister, Rebecca Johnson, told reporters, “Today I feel like we’ve had answers and we’ve had justice, and that’s for our brother and that’s for gay men who were bashed or killed in that era.”
Scott White is eligible for parole in 2030 after he has served a minimum of 8 years and 3 months of his sentence. Although those involved in the investigation are convinced this was a gay hate crime, the judge announced that the Court could not come to the same conclusion.
It’s still a mystery exactly what happened between Dr. Johnson and White that fateful day, but with a confession and a conviction, Johnson’s family may finally be able to feel some sense of closure.