Australian admits to pushing gay American off cliff in homophobic 1988 killing

An Australian man has admitted to pushing a gay American off a cliff in a homophobic murder that went unsolved for over 30 years, as the court heard how the killer often boasted about targeting and attacking homosexual men.

Scott White, 51, appeared in the New South Wales state Supreme Court for sentencing on Monday after he shocked his own lawyers by pleading guilty to the murder of Los Angeles-born mathematician Scott Johnson at a pre-trial hearing in January.

Mr Johnson’s body was found by a fisherman at the bottom of a cliff known for gay meet-ups in North Head, Sydney, back in 1988.

For years, police said he died by suicide – something the 27-year-old’s family refused to accept.

Finally in 2020, more than three decades on from his death, White was charged with his murder and confessed that he intentionally pushed Mr Johnson to his death in a gay hate crime.

In another bizarre twist in the case, the killer has now backtracked on his guilty plea and lodged an appeal against his conviction – with his legal team claiming that he is also gay and feared his homophobic brother finding out.

White had met his victim in a bar prior to his death but it is unclear exactly how they both came to be at the cliff point that day.

Mr Johnson’s body was naked when it was discovered on the rocks below and his clothes were found neatly folded on the cliff above.

Prosecutor Brett Hatfield said that White’s accounts have been inconsistent so the exact details of the murder remain unclear.

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On Monday, the court heard audio from White’s 2020 police confession where he admitted: “I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge.”

White had previously been questioned by police about the killing but claimed he had tried to stop his victim from falling to death.

His ex-wife Helen also revealed to the court that White often “bragged” about attacking gay men in his youth over the years, even telling stories of the assaults on their children.

She said that she had asked him on two occasions if he had killed Mr Johnson.

The first time was not long after the 27-year-old’s murder in 1988 when she read about his death in a newspaper.

When she asked White if he was responsible for the killing, she said he replied “of that girly looking p*****r?” and they got into “a bit of an argument.”

She said she confronted him about Mr Johnson’s death again two decades later in September 2008 when the story resurfaced in the media.

She said she asked him if he had killed the gay man to which White allegedly responded that “the only good p*****r is a dead p*****r” before adding that “it’s not my fault the dumb c**t ran off the cliff.”

She said she replied that “it is if you chased him” and her husband didn’t respond.

At the time of Mr Johnson’s death, gangs of homophic men were roaming the streets of Sydney searching for gay men to assault, rob and sometimes kill, a coroner on the case said in 2017.

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It was Ms White who finally turned her husband into the police, sending an anonymous letter to a detective in 2019.

Mr Johnson’s siblings flew into Sydney from the US to deliver emotional victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing.

His brother Steve Johnson, who spent years pushing police to investigate his death further and put up his own reward of 1 million Australian dollars ($704,000) for information, told how his brother “died in terror”.

“With a vicious push, Mr White took Scott and he vanished,” he said.

“This man [his brother] who once told me he could never hurt someone even in self-defense died in terror.”

He said that he appreciated White’s guilty plea but would have “a little more sympathy” if he had turned himself in after committing the crime.

“If he had grasped Scott’s hand and pulled him to safety, I would owe him everlasting gratitude,” he said.

Mr Johnson’s sisters Terry and Rebecca Johnson, his partner Michael Noone and Steve Johnson’s wife Rosemarie Johnson also gave victim impact statements.

Rosemarie Johnson described the initial police failure to investigate Scott Johnson’s death as “indefensible and inhumane”.

Rebecca Johnson, a younger sister, said the police report of suicide “made no sense.”

“How could a community fail so spectacularly that they created boys capable of such horror?” she asked, referring to media reports of gay beatings in Sydney being described as a sport.

In 1989, a coroner said Mr Johnson had died by suicide while a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.

In 2017, a third ruled that he “fell from the clifftop as a result of current or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual”.

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White will be sentenced on Tuesday. The 51-year-old faces up to life in prison.

Associated Press contributed to this report

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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