Detectives in New South Wales on Tuesday 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. That man has been identified as Scott White, and he was arrested after someone came forward with information.
ABC News Australia reports: “The arrest of the 49-year-old man from Lane Cove came after an extensive police operation. The ABC understands that police will allege the then 18-year-old met Scott Johnson at a hotel in Manly before heading to what was a popular gay beat at the time — a place men met for casual sex. The scene of Mr Johnson’s last moments is a 15-to-20 minute walk from the central hub of Manly through a car park and up a steep dirt track past shrubbery and a wall that shields the site from the view of any passersby. At Bluefish Point, Scott Johnson is believed to have removed his clothes at which time Mr White is alleged to have panicked and punched him causing Mr Johnson to lose his balance and fall to his death.”
Johnson’s sister Rebecca spoke out in an interview: “I’m so grateful that [an informant] came forward. … Scott and others like Scott were persecuted for being gay solely for being gay. It’s important, I think, that we acknowledge that.”
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.”