News (World)

Killer takes manslaughter plea deal for pushing gay man off cliff 35 years ago

Scott Johnson
Scott Johnson Photo: Justice for Scott Johnson

On Thursday in Australia, a man who bragged to his wife that “the only good poofter is a dead poofter” pled guilty to manslaughter in the death of a 27-year-old American Ph.D. student 35 years ago.

Scott White, 52, admitted culpability in the death of Cambridge University student Scott Johnson at a gay cruising spot north of Sydney in 1988, where the American fell 180 feet to his death. His naked body was discovered the next morning along the rocky shore below North Head cliff.

It was the latest episode in a long-running search for justice for Johnson’s family.

In 1988, New South Wales police ruled Johnson’s death a suicide, even though several gay men had died around the heavily trafficked “gay beat” at the time. Those deaths became the subject of a special commission of inquiry examining the unsolved murders of gay men and trans women in Sydney and New South Wales between 1970 and 2010.

Johnson, originally from Los Angeles, had moved to Australia to be with his partner, Michael Noone, and complete his Ph.D. studies at Australian National University in the capital city of Canberra, south of Sydney.

“It was inconceivable to me that Scott went somewhere and jumped off a cliff,” his brother Steve Johnson said in a 2018 BBC interview. In 2020 Johnson matched a one million Australian dollar reward for information leading to the arrest of his brother’s killer.

Authorities got a break in the case in 2019, when White’s ex-wife Helen came forward to reveal White had often bragged to her and their children about bashing gay men around Sydney in the 1980’s. When she showed White an article about the search for Johnson’s killer, White replied, “The only good poofter is a dead poofter.”

White was arrested and charged with Johnson’s murder in 2020.

Evidence included recorded conversations. In one, White shared with two witnesses that he was secretly gay. He said that being gay was his “biggest secret” because his brother and family “hate gays.” He also told investigators, referring to Johnson, that he had “pushed the bloke, and he went over the edge.”

White, who was 18 years old and homeless at the time, also admitted that he and Johnson had met at a nearby pub and went to North Head together. White claimed he didn’t know why Johnson had taken his clothes off and that the men had a fight. White said he punched Johnson, who fell off the cliff. Johnson’s clothes and belongings were found feet from the edge.

At a pre-trial hearing in 2021, where White was to enter a plea of not guilty, he surprised his lawyers when he admitted to killing Johnson. “I’m guilty, guilty. Yes, guilty.” Minutes later, under advisement, White withdrew the plea, saying he made the admission under duress. The judge in the case ignored the reversal and sentenced White to 12 years in prison.

Justice Helen Wilson said that while there was not enough evidence to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that Johnson’s death was a gay hate crime, White had demonstrated “reckless indifference to human life” and Johnson suffered “a terrible death.”

Nine months later, an appeals court overturned White’s conviction based on the withdrawal of his guilty plea.

Thursday’s plea deal for manslaughter brings a measure of justice for Johnson’s family.

Steve Johnson told ABC Australia that Thursday’s proceedings “might be the most emotional moment yet” in the family’s 35-year struggle.

“The police work that continued during the appeal and after the appeal… so that we could negotiate this, I’m incredibly thankful,” he said.

Johnson said he hoped White could one day find it in himself to explain why he “was there with my brother and what his intention was.”

White awaits sentencing in June.

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