*story uses language and contains details some readers may find upsetting*
An Australian man faces a sentence of life in prison for Sydney’s most infamous gay hate murder, which had for years been dismissed by police as suicide.
Scott White, 51, appeared before the New South Wales state Supreme Court for sentencing on Monday (1 May) after surprising his own lawyers during a pre-trial hearing in January, by pleading guilty to the murder of Los Angeles-born mathematician Scott Johnson.
Mr Johnson’s naked body was discovered by a fisherman at the bottom of a cliff, known for being a gay hook-up point, in North Head, Sydney, back in 1988.
For years, police ruled his death as suicide – but his family refused to accept it.
The initial coroner ruled in 1989 that Johnson had taken his own life, while a second coroner, in 2012, said they ‘could not explain how he died’.
Following three coronial inquests (a court-like proceeding held after unusual deaths) and several public appeals, over the course of three decades, officers eventually charged White over the murder in 2020.
On Monday, the court heard audio from White’s 2020 police confession where he admitted the crime, saying: “I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge.”
In January White, to the surprise of his lawyers, pleaded guilty to the murder during a pre-trial hearing, but he and his legal team have since tried to withdraw the admission, claiming a potential “cognitive impairment”.
White’s ex-wife, Helen, is said to have told the court how he often “bragged” about attacking gay men in his younger years, even telling their six children about his past.
When prompted as to whether she ever asked her then-husband if he killed Mr Johnson, she confirmed she had on two occasions.
The first, in 1988, when Ms White saw a photo of Johnson in a newspaper and asked if he was responsible for the crime.
“He replied, ‘oh that girly looking poofter?’ … we then had a bit of an argument,” she told the court.
She then told how she saw another article about Johnson in a newspaper, around 2008, and asked White “did you do this?” to which he replied “the only good poofter is a dead poofter”.
She says White then told her “it’s not my fault the dumb c**t ran off the cliff” and she said “it is if you chased him”.
Ms White eventually tipped the police off to her ex-husband’s involvement in Johnson’s death, writing an anonymous letter to a detective mentioned in a news story.
White is said to have met Johnson in a nearby bar in a Sydney suburb, according to prosecutors, but it’s unclear how they both came to be at the cliff that night. Prosecutor Brett Hatfield said that White’s accounts have been inconsistent so the exact details of the murder remain unclear.
Members of Johnson’s family read out victim impact statements to the court, all remembering his ‘gentle’ and ‘shy’ character.
Johnson’s sister, Terry, spoke about how Johnson “wouldn’t hurt a fly” and said she believed White deserved life in prison.
“This hateful person who killed Scott has been walking free on this earth for the past 33 years,” she said.
White, who appeared wearing prison greens, listened to the statements from the court dock.
Johnson’s brother Steve, who spent three decades campaigning for justice, even offering to double the $1 million police reward to anyone who came forward with information that led to a prosecution, told of the “agonising” grief he lives with, adding he will never forget the “wailing cry” their mother made upon finding out he was dead.
Outside the court, Steve told reporters: “Being able to express myself in court, being able to look him in the eye was really important,” he said.
“I got to tell him what my brother was like, I got to tell him how it felt to hear he was dead.”
Michael Noone, Johnson’s then partner, recalled the “sheer horror” of getting the call from police to identify the body of his “best friend”, saying: “No-one can imagine what it was like to be shown his lifeless and very badly damaged body,”
“It’s an indelible image that is burnt into the brain. It’s an excruciatingly grotesque spectre that I’ll be taking to my own grave.”
In another bizarre twist in the case, White has since backtracked on his guilty plea and lodged an appeal against his conviction, claiming his ex-wife’s evidence was fabricated and that their client’s ‘culpability should be reduced because of his compromised intellectual and psychiatric state, and the fact he was 18 at the time of the crime’.
His lawyer also revealed White is gay himself and had long been afraid of his homophobic brother discovering about his sexuality.
The tragic story.
Over 30 years ago, on December 8, 1988, Scott Johnson’s body was found naked at the base of North Head cliff in New South Wales as a result of a gay hate crime that, at the time, was dismissed by police as suicide.
Police had initially concluded that Johnson, who was a student in Canberra, had taken his own life. This was despite the discovery that his wallet was missing from his clothes, which were neatly folded near the cliff top.
In 1989, a coronial inquest ruled that Johnson, who was openly gay, had taken his own life. However a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.
Johnson’s family sought and campaigned tirelessly for justice and a third inquest and, eventually, in 2017, it was ruled that Johnson died as a result of a hate crime, having “fell from the cliff top as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.”
State Coroner Michael Barnes reported in findings that, during that time, gangs of men roamed various Sydney locations in search of gay men to assault, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some of the victims were also robbed.
The police offered a $1 million reward to anyone who came forward with information that led to a prosecution, a figure which was matched by Johnson’s brother, Steve, bringing the total reward amount to $2 million.
with murdering the 27-year-old LA-born victim.
Although White’s legal team had prepared to argue his innocence, at a pre-trial hearing in the New South Wales Supreme Court on Monday (10 January), White is reported to have yelled repeatedly that he was guilty, having previously denied the crime.
White, 50, shocked his legal team when he was arraigned at the hearing by sensationally declaring in open court he is “guilty, guilty, guilty” to the 1988 murder.
Supreme Court Justice Helen Wilson asked White’s barrister, Belinda Rigg, whether he spoke in error, but she was unable to say for certain.
Rigg reportedly told the court at the time that, while her client was not unfit to plead, he did suffer from stress and anxiety, also requiring support for an intellectual disability, and was distressed prior to his appearance in court on the Monday.
Justice Wilson observed White was “very emphatic” and repeated the words “guilty” or “I’m guilty” at least three times “in a manner which was very determined and very firm, and using a loud and clear voice”.
When White was first arrested in May 2020, the court heard that he had made a confession to police which he later withdrew.
The court heard White had raised an intention to plead guilty on several occasions, but Ms Rigg said these were moments of high stress and, after calming down, he accepted legal advice that he had a strong case, and to proceed with the trial.
After declaring his guilt on the Monday, White reportedly apologised to his lawyers, telling them he appreciated their work “but I can’t handle it”. A transcript of the conference with his lawyers was tendered to the court where Justice Wilson said it didn’t “stick out” to her as a split decision.
On Thursday January 13, the judge refused to grant White leave to withdraw his plea and White was convicted of Johnson’s murder. She also lifted a non-publication order in place that had prevented media from reporting the proceedings.
White is due to be sentenced on Tuesday and faces a potential sentence of life in prison. He, along with his legal team, have lodged an appeal against his conviction.