Investigation Into 25-Year-Old Sydney Death Shines Light On Series Of Gay Murders From 1980s

scott johnson

The government of New South Wales, Australia, is offering a reward of $100,000 ($102,680 U.S.) for information related to the death of a gay man in Sydney in 1988.

In December of that year, the naked body of American Scott Johnson, 27, was found at the base of Manly’ Beach’s North Head. Johnson had moved Down Under to be with his partner and complete his graduate studies in mathematics. (According to News.com.au, he died on the day he finished his doctoral work.)

At the time, the police determined there was no foul play and Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide. But a second investigation recently started by the Johnson family has lead to more questions, and the case has been referred to the State Crime Command’s Unsolved Homicide Team.

“At this stage, it is not known whether Scott’s death is a result of suicide, misadventure or murder,” said Detective Chris Olen. “With a lack of witnesses and physical evidence, this is a very challenging case.”

Steve Johnson, Scott’s brother, has no doubts, saying “We believe in our hearts that Scott was murdered in a hate crime because he was gay.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a series of disappearances and murders of (presumed) gay men plagued Bondi Beach, Manly’s “big brother” and a popular tourist destination. The crimes went unsolved—and some would say largely un-investigated—for decades.

According to a 2007 article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

In 2004 Coroner Jacqueline Milledge ruled that violent gangs preying on homosexuals probably hurled three of the group to their deaths at Marks Park, overlooking Bondi Beach.

She also determined that gay bashings in the park were common and that similar attacks might have occurred at gay beats at Alexandria and Randwick.

Johnson’s family initially hired an investigator to conduct an investigation because of the similarities between Johnson’s death and the “gay gang murders,” as they were known.

LGBT activist and firebrand Garry Burns says the police are just making a token gesture to distract from the department’s systemic failure to investigate the murders from years past.

In an open letter to Chief Minister Katy Gallacher, he wrote:

[The reward] is a lovey-dovey feel-good approach taken by the NSW Police Force that will fail to deliver justice for these young lives lost due to gay hate crimes.

The police force during that period should not have reflected or exhibited the broader values and principles of the then-society. It should have taken affirmative action to change society’s views toward homosexual males. It didn’t do this because of a police-force culture of intolerance for a lifestyle viewed by them as a perversion.”

A Facebook page, Justice for Scott Johnson, continues to follow the Johnson family’s quest for justice.