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Man pleads guilty to 1988 gay hate killing of Scott Johnson in Sydney

Scott White, 50, has pleaded guilty to the murder of 27-year-old Scott Johnson, whose body was found at the foot of cliffs in Sydney more than 33 years ago.

2022-01-13

Words: Will Stroude

A man has pled guilty to the 1988 gay hate killing of Scott Johnson in Sydney, ending one of Australia's most notorious murder cases. 

50-year-old Scott White, who was arrested and charged with Johnson's murder in 2020, unexpectedly pled guilty at a pre-trial hearing on Monday (10 January), ABC reports.

It is understood that lawyers for White attempted to have the admission withdrawn the following day, arguing that White was not of sound mind, but on Thursday (12 January) a Supreme Court judge rejected the motion and convicted him of murder.

The conviction comes more than 33 years after the body of American Scott Johnson, 27, was discovered naked at the foot of coastal cliffs in Sydney.

His brutal death was initially ruled to be a suicide, but following years of campaigning by his family, officers reopened the investigation and ruled he had been killed as the result of a homophobic hate crime.

Johnson was a mathematician who had moved to Sydney in the late '80s to be with his partner. He was close to completing his PhD when his naked body was found at the bottom of a 60-metre cliff at a gay cruising spot in North Head, Manly, on 10 December 1988.

For three decades between the 1970s and 2000, the parks and coastline surrounding Sydney were the scenes of a huge number of brutal deaths involving gay men, many of whom were found at the foot of cliffs.

Many of the men had their cause of death listed as the result of suicides or accidents, but rumours swirled for years that homophobic gangs roamed the city's known gay meeting areas looking for victims to attack.

In 2018, police admitted that the killings of at least 27 gay in Sydney between 1976 and 2000 were likely homophobic hate crimes, with as many as 25 more needing further investigation.

 

After three inquests, it was ruled in 2017 that Scott Johnson been the victim of an anti-gay attack. A $1m reward for information leading to an arrest in the case was offered in 2018.

In 2020, Scott White was arrested after being named as a suspect by an informant, ABC reports.

Mr Johnson's brother, Steve Johnson, has spent decades campaigning for justice for his late sibling and welcomed the conviction. 

"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, adding: "[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."

Johnson added this his brother was a "proud" gay man, as well as his best friend.

"[My brother] was brilliant, but more modest than he was brilliant, so you would never hear him say that," he said.

"The last conversation we know he had was with his [university] professor … as far as his professor was concerned, my brother could get a job at any university in the world."

Scott White is due to return to court for sentencing on 2 May.