After more than 30 years, authorities in Australia have announced an arrest in the notorious cold-case murder of an American man who it’s believed was forced off a cliff for being gay.
Scott Johnson was a 27-year-old mathematician earning his doctorate at Australian National University in Canberra when in December 1988 he was found naked and dead near the base of a cliff near Sydney that was known as a meetup place for gay men.
His death was initially ruled a suicide. But then in 2017, thanks to relentless campaigning and investigative work sponsored by his family, an Australian coroner found that Johnson had fallen due to actual or threatened violence by unknown people who attacked him for being gay. The coroner ruled his death a hate crime.
On Tuesday, a 49-year-old man was taken into custody by police in New South Wales. Charges against the suspect, who was not identified by police, were not immediately announced. Multiple Australian news outlets identified the suspect as Scott White and reported that he has been charged with murder.
A search warrant was executed Tuesday morning at a Sydney home near where the man was arrested. A forensic search at North Head cliffs, where Johnson was killed, was also conducted, police said.
New South Wales state Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said he personally called Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson, to inform him of the news.
“Making that phone call this morning is a career highlight ― Steve has fought so hard for so many years, and it has been an honour to be part of his fight for justice,” the commissioner said in a statement.
“While we have a long way to go in the legal process, it must be acknowledged that if it wasn’t for the determination of the Johnson family, which inspired me and the Strike Force Welsford team ― led by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans ― we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Scott Johnson’s death is believed to be one of many anti-gay killings that were not fully investigated over several decades in Australia.
At the time of Scott Johnson’s death, local police were said to turn a blind eye to attacks against gay men. They claimed that the area around the cliffs was not a so-called “gay beat” and that there were not multiple reports of groups violently targeting gay men at the cliffs.
Thanks in part to the efforts of Johnson’s brother, the suspicious deaths of more than 80 gay men during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s in New South Wales were reopened in 2012. A third of them were found to be bias or suspected bias crimes and 23 of the cases were referred to the unsolved homicide squad in 2018, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
In 2018, the New South Wales government also announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Johnson’s killer or killers. His brother, a former vice president of AOL, matched that amount, increasing the reward to $2 million.
Steve Johnson, speaking to Australia’s ABC News, said he hopes this week’s arrest brings some solace to the friends and families of other men who lost their lives due to anti-gay prejudice and hatred.
“And I hope it opens the door to resolve some of the other mysterious deaths of men who have not yet received justice,” he said.
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