Man facing jail for historic anti-gay murder was in closet himself, says lawyer

Scott Johnson
Scott Johnson

Lawyers for an Australian who confessed to the murder of a gay American at a known, beachside cruising spot in Sydney in 1988 say their client was gay himself and terrified of his homophobic brother finding out.

The victim, Scott Johnson, 27, was a US citizen who went to Australia to study for his math doctorate and be with his Australian partner, Michael Noone. His body was found at the foot of cliffs at Manly’s North Head Beach, outside Sydney.

Police at the time were quick to dismiss his death as a suicide. However, Scott’s friends and family never believed this to be the case.

Scott Johnson
Scott Johnson (Photo: NSW Police)

The killing went unsolved for over 33 years but his family refused to give up on finding whoever was responsible. Johnson’s brother, Steve, offered an AUS$1million reward for information in 2020 (on top of an AUS$1million already on offer from Australian authorities in 2019).

This led to the arrest of a local man, Scott Phillip White, 51.

Earlier this year, during a pre-trial hearing, White dramatically confessed to the crime.

Related: Murder of gay, math genius finally solved after man admits guilt 34 years later

However, since that time, his lawyers have been trying to withdraw his confession. At a pre-sentencing hearing today, Belinda Rigg SC said White, who was 18 at the time of Johnson’s death, suffers from a “cognitive impairment”.

She also revealed White was gay himself and scared of others finding out. He lived with his brother and alcoholic parents at the time of Johnson’s death.

White’s former wife, Helen, also appeared at today’s hearing. She told the court White often bragged about beating up gay men when younger. She said he even told his six kids about it.

She told the court she twice asked her husband about the killing of Scott Johnson, after the case was brought up in the news.

In 1998, she read about the Johnson case in a newspaper and asked her then-husband about it.

“He replied, ‘oh that girly looking poofter?’ … we then had a bit of an argument,” she said.

“Did you do this?” she asked him. “He said the only good poofter is a dead poofter, to which I said, ‘So you threw him off the cliff’. And he said, ‘It’s not my fault the dumb c*nt ran off the cliff’.”

“It is if you chased him,” his wife replied.

White’s wife eventually tipped off the police. She denied claims from White’s lawyers that she’d made up her statements after reading about the reward money.

Also in court today were members of the Johnson family, who flew into Sydney to give powerful testimony about the beloved brother they lost.

White, dressed in prison greens, looked on from the dock of the NSW Supreme Court.

Johnson’s older sister Terry said her brother Scott “wouldn’t hurt a fly”.

“The hateful person who killed Scott has been walking free on this earth for the past 33 years,” she added. “Thirty-three years that he took away from my baby brother. I believe [White] deserves life in prison.”

Johnson’s other sister, Rebecca, broke down, begging White to let this be the “final chapter.”

“Parents, brothers and sisters, teachers and classmates, authority, culture, somehow Mr White’s world reinforced that violence and even killing was OK and maybe that gay men weren’t human. That is a profound tragedy,” she said.

Related: US man offers $660,000 to find killer of his gay brother in Australia

Scott Johnson’s brother, Steve, talked about the “agonizing grief” the family has endured over the past three decades. He paid tribute to his brother’s math skills, lamenting how he had missed the “golden era for nerds” and the advances enjoyed by so many LGBTQ people across the world.

Steve Johnson said he’d never forget the “wailing cry” his mother made on finding out about her son’s death.

Michael Noone, Johnson’s partner, also have testimony. He talked of the horror of being called by police and how his and Johnson’s dreams of a new life together were cut short.

“No-one can imagine what it was like to be shown his lifeless and very badly damaged body,” he said.

“It’s an indelible image that is burnt into the brain … it’s an excruciatingly grotesque specter that I’ll be taking to my own grave.”

Justice Helen Wilson will hand down White’s sentence tomorrow.

UPDATE May 03, 2022

Justice Helen Wilson handed White a jail sentence of 12 years and seven months. Read our full story: Scott Johnson: Gay, US man’s killer jailed in Sydney for 12 years