Detectives in New South Wales have arrested a man and charged him with murder in the 1988 cold case death of Sydney-based American Scott Johnson that only three years ago was classified a hate crime rather than a suicide. The suspect has not yet been identified.
The Guardian reports: “The man, now aged 49, was arrested at a Lane Cove property on Tuesday morning and taken to Chatswood police station for questioning. He has been refused bail to appear at Parramatta Local Court on Wednesday. A $1m reward for information leading to an arrest in the case was offered in 2018. On Tuesday the NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, said he had been in contact with Johnson’s brother Steve, who lives in the US, to inform him of the arrest.”
Said Fuller: “Making that phone call this morning is a career highlight – Steve has fought so hard for so many years, and it has been an honor be part of his fight for justice. 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 – led by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Johnson’s brother spoke out in an emotional video after the arrest (video below): “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.”
In 1988, Johnson fell to his death off the North Head cliffs in Sydney.
In 1989, Mr Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide. When evidence began to emerge that gangs had been attacking gay men in the area during the 1980s and 1990s, his family pushed for a second inquest. In 2012, the suicide ruling was overturned. A recommendation was made that police reinvestigate his death.
In December 2017, almost 30 years following his death, New South Wales state coroner Michael Barnes said he was “persuaded to the requisite standard Scott Johnson died as a result of a gay hate attack” and not a suicide.
It is now thought that as many as 88 deaths in Sydney starting in the 1970s, including 30 unsolved cases, were hate crimes. In 2016, a multimedia project including a four-part fictional drama examined the case. Deep Water also included a documentary and a podcast.
The New York Times reported in November 2017: “Former Australian officials have said the police at that time were often hostile toward gay men and complacent about investigating their deaths. In 2013, the police of New South Wales, which includes Sydney, opened a review of 88 deaths of men between 1976 and 2000 to determine whether they should be reclassified as hate crimes. No new arrests have been made since then, and Magistrate Barnes said there was insufficient evidence to determine who killed Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson, an American tech entrepreneur who hired an investigator and pushed for the case to be reopened, said Thursday that he never believed his brother had committed suicide. When he learned about a 2005 inquest into three deaths from the same period, which found that the men had been driven off cliffs, ‘everything clicked into place,’ said Mr. Johnson, 58, who was in court for the Thursday ruling.”
At the inquest, Barnes said the initial investigators in Mr. Johnson’s case had “quickly jumped to conclusions without thoroughly and impartially examining all the facts.”
He added that that the area from which Mr. Johnson fell was a well-known cruising spot. Some retired officials have acknowledged that groups of teenagers and young men would target such areas but police failed to see it at the time.
In a statement in 2017, New South Wales police said that is had “conducted an exhaustive investigation over the past four years and presented all available evidence” about Mr. Johnson’s death to the coroner. “Any new information provided to police relating to the circumstances of Mr. Johnson’s death,” the statement added, “will be thoroughly investigated.”