Steve Johnson never believed his brother, Scott, jumped off a cliff in Australia 32 years ago. When New South Wales police classified the American mathematician’s death a suicide, Steve Johnson and his family never stopped pushing for a deeper investigation.
On May 12, Scott Phillip White, 49, was arrested in a suburb of Sydney and charged with Scott Johnson’s murder in what law enforcement is calling a gay-hate crime, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. White’s brother Shane told the Daily Mail that White is innocent.
Johnson was working on his Ph.D. at the Australian National University when he died at the age of 27. His naked body was found on December 10, 1988, on the rocks at the bottom of a cliff at Blue Fish Point, an area that was subsequently determined to be a popular spot that gay men frequented.
Police believe Johnson was “thrown, hounded or frightened off the cliff by at least two people motivated by hatred of gays,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
In the 1980s ‘Gay Gang Murders’ Were Rampant in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney
In the 1980s gangs of teenage boys were known to attack gay men, sometimes killing them. Several men were found dead at the bottom of the cliffs. The gangs were called things like “Bondi Boys” and the “Alexandria Eight.”
According to an article on the Bondi Boys published in the Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, the disappearances and deaths of men in the Marks Park area where Johnson’s body was found weren’t investigated as connected crimes until 10 years after they happened when a detective finally noticed similarities in the cases.
Journalist Rick Feneley, who worked on a documentary about the gangs and their hate crimes, Deep Water: The Real Story, reported that some boys were arrested for their role in murders but many were not. He reported at least 20 members of the Bondi Boys were suspected of being involved with the assaults on gay men but were never charged.
A Brother’s Persistence was Key in the Cold Case Arrest
In the Johnson death investigation, what may have finally solved the cold case was the reward money. That, and the persistence of Johnson’s brother Steve for the last 30 years.
It was Steve who pushed investigators to investigate again twice after the coroner’s initial report that his brother’s death was a suicide.
After the second inquest into the death in 2012, investigators had an open finding, according to NBC News. The third inquest in 2017 “found that Johnson fell from the clifftop as the result of violence by an unidentified attacker who perceived him to be gay,” NBC reported.
That decision officially made Johnson’s case a murder case.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a $1 million ($647,000 in American dollars) reward was offered in 2018 for information leading to an arrest in Johnson’s case. In March 2019, a lead investigator had narrowed in on a suspect.
Steve Johnson, a wealthy pioneer of AOL technology, according to Business Insider, then matched the reward money, bringing it up to $2 million ($1,295,039 in American dollars).
After three decades, Australian authorities arrested White in connection with the murder of Scott Johnson.
Steve Johnson gave a statement thanking New South Wales law enforcement and said his brother “courageously lived his life as he wanted to. 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,” he said.