A chilling new video released by the NSW Supreme Court captures the moment Sydney resident Scott White discusses with police detectives about the 1988 murder of 27-year-old gay American mathematician Scott Johnson.
Trigger Warning: This story had details of homophobic slurs and the murder of a gay man, which might be distressing to some readers. For 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For Australia-wide LGBTQI peer support call QLife on 1800 184 527 or webchat.
Johnson’s naked body was found on the morning of December 10, 1988 at the base of a cliff at Blue Fish Point, near Manly’s North Head on Sydney’s northern beaches. Initially ruled a suicide, decades later fresh police investigation into the case led to White’s arrest in May 2020.
‘I pushed the bloke’
The video of White’s police interview and the judgment copy provides new details in the case.
White’s ex-wife Helen was the one who alerted NSW police in 2019 to his role in the murder and helped solve the three decade old case. Helen told court that White used to brag about “bashing p*****s” in his younger days.
The court said that Helen’s evidence had been corroborated by White’s statement to two unnamed witnesses who attended his home in March 2020 and engaged him in conversation regarding Johnson’s death.
During this conversation, White acknowledged that he had been at North Head with Johnson, who he described as having an “American accent” and a “good build”. During the course of the conversations he also admitted to hitting Johnson and see him go over the cliff edge. “This is much more than coincidence,” the judge said.
On March 19, 2020, White told the two witnesses that “being gay was his biggest secret, because his brother and his family ‘hate[d] gays'”. On a drive from the Lane Cove area to Manly. White told the witnesses that he had dreamt about Johnson.
“I pushed the bloke, he went over the edge,” White told the police detectives referring to Johnson.
‘We Used To Go P*****r Bashing’
“I did have a dream about, ‘bout him… a couple of nights ago, I don’t know it was just a weird dream in the bush, something to do with the bush… I was with him up the, up at North Head,” White said.
He told the witnesses that “the kid that died” had been gay, and made s shocking admission, saying, “See back in them days wasn’t like it is now […] Like we used to go poofter bashing”.
On reaching Manly, White took the witnesses to North Head, Sydney Harbour National Park, to the area where Johnson had fallen off the cliff.
While they were walking, the court said that White had commented from time to time that in his dream Johnson had got undressed. He then said that he had met Johnson at the Brighton Hotel in manly and said that they had “come up here” to North Head. “I think we had a fight. That’s all I can remember… he fell. I took off”.
White indicated where he had been standing and Johnson’s position. “I hit him, he hit me. He stumbled back. I went to grab him and he stumbled back”. He then recalled that the victim was speaking with a bit of an “American accent” and had “a good build”, adding that he did not know about the fate of Johnson’s clothes.
He then said: “I punched him […] He went backwards and I tried to grab him. […] And he fell”. White told the witnesses that he was “very emotional” and could “never cope with it”.
White was arrested by NSW police on May 12, 2020. During his interview with the police, he acknowledged that he had told the witnesses that he had “pushed a bloke. He went over the edge.” In the video he said that it was all “rubbish” and “all full of shit”” and he had said what he had to “get these guys off me back”. (The video has details of a gay man’s murder, which might be upsetting to some readers. Viewer discretion is advised. Video courtesy: NSW Supreme Court.)
No Evidence It Was A Gay Hate Crime, Says Court
The court said that White’s admission to the witnesses at North Head as well as what he told his ex-wife Helen, had “established to the criminal standard” that the accused had struck a blow without provocation and it caused Johnson to fall to his death.
“In those seconds when he must have realised what was happening to him, Dr Johnson must have been terrified, aware that he would strike the rocks below, and conscious of his fate,” the judge said.
“The Court is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the offender did a violent act, and that act was the direct cause of Dr Johnson leaving the cliff top in terror and dying on the rocks at its base. It was a terrible death.”
The court said that evidence was not enough to rule that the murder was a gay hate crime. While White had told Helen that “the only good p*****r is a dead p*****r”, there was also evidence where he described meeting Johnson and going to North head.
“Something prompted the offender to attack Dr Johnson after arriving there; possibly the assault was driven by the offender’s own self-loathing and loathing of what Dr Johnson represented; I have concluded it fed his indifference to his victim’s fate. That it was a gay hate crime is not a conclusion that the Court can reach to the criminal standard however,” the judge said.
Sydney Gay Murders
Johnson’s murder was one of the unsolved cases during the spate of murders of gay men and trans women that took place in Sydney between 1970 and 2010. There were around 88 deaths of gay men and trans women, suspected to be victims of hate crimes. Around 23 cases remain unsolved.
“These crimes represent one of the darkest times in our recent history. They were callous, brutal and cowardly,” NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said in a statement in November 2020 while announcing the setting up of a judicial inquiry into the deaths.
A bipartisan Parliamentary committee that inquired into the cases concluded that in most cases NSW Police had “failed in its duty to properly investigate hate crimes against the gay and transgender communities”.