CANBERRA, Australia – A man has told police he killed American mathematician Scott Johnson in 1988 by pushing the 27-year-old off a Sydney cliff in what prosecutors describe as a gay hate crime, a court heard Monday.
Scott White, 51, appeared in New South Wales State Supreme Court for a sentencing hearing after pleading guilty in January to the murder of the Los Angeles-born Canberra resident, whose death at the base of a North Head cliff was initially dismissed by police as a suicide.
White will be sentenced by Judge Helen Wilson on Tuesday. He faces a life sentence.
“I pushed a guy. He overstepped the mark,” White said in a 2020 taped interview with police that was played in court.
White said in the interview that he lied when he told police earlier that he had tried to grab Johnson and prevent his fatal fall.
A coroner ruled in 2017 that Johnson “fell from the top of a cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified people who attacked him because they perceived him to be gay.”
The coroner also discovered that gangs of men were scouring various locations in Sydney looking for gay men to assault, resulting in the death of some victims. Some people were also robbed.
A coroner ruled in 1989 that the openly gay man had taken his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.
Her Boston-based brother Steve Johnson kept up the pressure for further investigation and offered his own reward of A$1 million ($704,000) for more information. White was charged in 2020 and police say the reward will likely be collected.
White’s ex-wife Helen White told court her then-husband ‘bragged’ to their children about beating gay men on top of a cliff notorious for gay encounters .
Helen White said she read a 2008 newspaper article about Johnson’s death and asked her husband if he was responsible.
“It’s not my fault,” Scott White reportedly replied. “The mute (expletive) ran off the cliff.”
“I said, ‘That’s if you sue him,'” Helen White told the court. She said her husband didn’t answer.
Under cross-examination, Helen White denied knowing about a million Australian dollar reward for information about Johnson’s murder when she reported her ex-husband to the police in 2019. She said that she only learned of a reward when the victim’s brother, Steve Johnson, doubled the sum in 2020.
Steve Johnson said in his victim impact statement that “With a vicious push, Mr. White picked up Scott and he disappeared.”
“That man (Scott Johnson) who once told me he could never hurt anyone, even in self-defense, died of terror,” the brother added.
Steve Johnson said he appreciated White’s guilty plea.
“If he had surrendered after his violent act, I would have had a little more sympathy. If he had grabbed Scott’s hand and pulled him to safety, I would owe him eternal gratitude,” said the brother, his voice choked with emotion.
Scott 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 police’s initial failure to investigate Scott Johnson’s death as “indefensible and inhumane”.
Rebecca Johnson, a younger sister, said the police report into the suicide “didn’t make sense”.
“How could a community fail so spectacularly that it created boys capable of such horror?” she asked, referring to media reports of gay beatings in Sydney described as a sport.
Prosecutor Brett Hatfield said specific details of the murder were not known and White’s accounts had varied.
White had met Johnson at a nearby bar in the suburb of Manly and Johnson had stripped naked on top of the cliff before dying, Hatfield said. He said the seriousness of the murder was significantly high because it was motivated by the sexuality of the victim.
White’s attorney, Belinda Rigg, said her client was gay and feared her homophobic brother would find out.
In January, White repeatedly shouted in court during a preliminary hearing that he was guilty, after denying the crime.
His lawyers will appeal this plea to the Court of Criminal Appeal and hope that he will be acquitted at trial.
Scott Johnson was a PhD student at the Australian National University and lived in Canberra. He was staying with Noone’s parents in Sydney when he died.