A man has finally confessed to killing a gay American college student in Australia, ending an almost 35-year mystery over his death.
Scott White, 50, admitted to the murder of Scott Johnson, whose body was found at the bottom of a cliff in Sydney in 1988. The 27-year-old gay mathematician was studying for his PhD at Australian National University after moving to Australia to live with his partner.
Johnson’s clothes and belongings were found at the top of the cliff above his body, and he was in an area known to be frequented by gay men, which led investigators at the time to write his death off as suicide.
His brother, Steve Johnson, was unconvinced with that verdict and pushed for the investigation to be reopened after learning at an inquest in 2005 that three other men had died in similar circumstances, the New York Times reports.
“It was inconceivable to me that Scott went somewhere and jumped off a cliff,” Steve Johnson told the BBC in 2018.
“The coroner quickly determined suicide, which is what the police told them,” Johnson said. “There was no investigation whatsoever and that was in 1989. It was the end of the story.”
After police refused to reinvestigate his brother’s death, Johnson hired a private investigator who learned that as many as 80 gay men were murdered in the 1980s by homophobic gangs, with many of them pushed over cliffs.
“The gangs would attack these cruising areas because they knew the police wouldn’t come after them,” Johnson told the BBC.
“They also knew that the gay community were afraid of the police, so they wouldn’t come and report the crimes. It’s pretty well known that the attacks against gay people were grossly under-reported.”
Another inquest ruled in 2017 that Scott Johnson had been the victim of an anti-gay hate crime, forcing police to reopen their investigation.
After a 1 million Australian dollar reward was offered for information, police ultimately charged Scott White with Scott Johnson’s murder in May 2020.
Despite initially proclaiming his innocence, White “surprised everyone in the courtroom” by switching his plea to guilty during a pre-trial arraignment on Jan. 10.
ABC News reports that White’s lawyers tried to retract his guilty plea, but the Supreme Court rejected their motion and convicted White of murder.
White will finally be sentenced on May 2, more than 33 years after Scott Johnson’s death.
His brother, Steve Johnson, told ABC News that his faith had been “restored” after finally getting justice for Scott.
“I think primarily I’m feeling relief and I am thinking about my brother and that a lot of people cared about him to bring this result today,” he said.
He added: “[We’re] greatly relieved that the accused found it in his soul to confess and plead guilty and put an end to this, so I’m very happy about that.”
According to the Times, dozens of deaths similar to Scott Johnson’s remain under review, and the New South Wales government last year opening an inquiry into anti-LGBTQ hate crimes between 1970 and 2010.
“They now have a model to follow,” Johnson said of the inquiry. “They now have some hope that you can solve a 30-year-old case. I feel like my brother would be really proud.”
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