A private investigator who took up Scott Johnson’s gay hate murder case has called for accountability for police who ignored historical crimes and reflected on brother Steve Johnson’s “incredible 33-year-long odyssey” for justice.
Scott Johnson was found dead at the bottom of a cliff at Manly in northern Sydney in 1988. NSW Police insisted the gay man died by suicide for many years.
However brother Steve Johnson always believed Scott’s death was a gay hate crime.
After a tip from an informant, in May 2020, police charged Sydney man Scott White with murder.
Last week, White confessed his guilt in open court and a judge convicted him. A court will sentence White in May.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, US journalist Daniel Glick recalled Steve Johnson first asking him to investigate Scott’s death in Sydney in 2007.
First, he reviewed the “scant” materials from the original 1989 inquest that claimed Scott Johnson had died by suicide.
“I frankly thought the cause of death was a toss-up,” he said.
“[But] during that first trip to Sydney in May 2007, the balance of probabilities shifted so fast it was breathtaking.
“Within a few hours of arriving, I talked to a presumably straight man who had worked [nearby] since the 1980s.
“He said that gay men met up at the headlands near Blue Fish Point area [at Manly] ‘all the time, mate’.
“I met a gay man who had been stabbed up there.
“I found names of more than a dozen men who were known gay bashers on the Northern Beaches around the time of Scott’s death, from Narrabeen to North Sydney.
“This all took place in one week.
“After an article appeared in the Manly Daily about Steve Johnson’s search for his brother’s killer with my email address on it, I received a deluge of leads from citizens, gay and straight.”
Glick said he “still can’t understand” why police “at the time pretended not to know any of this or make any possible connection to Scott Johnson’s death.”
He said his findings “clearly raised questions” but were met with “stone silence” from police that “continued for years”.
“We amassed more evidence that Scott had been murdered,” he said.
“And we’d compiled a credible list of people who might have done it or knew about it.”
Scott Johnson investigator calls for accountability
Later, NSW Police established an Unsolved Homicide Unit taskforce in 2013. However, he claimed that taskforce only pursued “its own theory that Scott had killed himself.”
But once more, Glick explained, Steve Johnson persevered.
“[He] petitioned for a third inquest, which returned a homicide finding – and a gay-hate motivated one at that,” he said.
New witnesses came forward and confirmed to the 2017 inquest the area at Manly was a known gay beat.
The third inquest heard gangs of men, including Australian Army soldiers, converged on the cliffs to commit gay hate assaults and robberies.
“It was only after the third inquest that new police leadership took this investigation seriously,” Glick recalled.
“By all accounts [they] did an amazing job.”
However Glick said he “still holds out hope that the responsible parties — police and perpetrators — face some sort of reckoning.”
“Where is the accountability for all of the past mistakes that individual police officers made, for the anguish they perpetrated?” he said.
“Not just on Scott Johnson’s family, but for the dozens if not hundreds of other people who were murdered, beaten, marginalised, and otherwise ignored as this epidemic of homophobic violence swept through NSW.
“We know many of the perpetrators of this violence, unlike Scott White, are still walking the streets, their crimes unsolved and solvable.
“We know that hundreds if not thousands of gay men and their loved ones have lived with nightmares from their bashings and the fear of going to the police to report it.
“I hope that in some small way, they will also find vindication in this guilty verdict in Scott Johnson’s case.”
Judicial inquiry into 40 years of NSW gay hate crimes
The shock resolution to the Scott Johnson case comes ahead of a long-awaited New South Wales judicial inquiry into 40 years of gay and trans hate crimes.
The NSW Government greenlit the inquiry in November. It was a key recommendation of a separate parliamentary inquiry into the violence.
But there are concerns and uncertainty around whether the powers of the new probe, to be headed by a judge, will fall short of a fully-fledged Royal Commission.
In addition to Scott Johnson, the NSW parliamentary committee highlighted three other victims of gay hate crimes – Alan Rosendale, John Russell and Ross Warren – and others and deemed the police response inadequate.
The inquiry also found that there was a “prevailing acceptance of and indifference” to violence against gay men before the mid-1990s.
In recent years NSW Police have offered substantial rewards for new information in some of the unsolved cases.
NSW Police acknowledges historical gay hate violence and bias
In 2018, NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Tony Crandell said the force “acknowledged without qualification” the historical gay hate violence.
That year, NSW Police released a report by Strike Force Parabell into 88 of the deaths between 1976 and 2000.
“The NSW Police Force acknowledges without qualification both its and society’s acceptance of gay bashings and shocking violence directed towards gay men, and the LGBTIQ community between 1976 and 2000,” Crandell said.
“It is clear and beyond question that levels of violence inflicted upon gay men in particular were elevated, extreme and often brutal.
“Based on societal values and attitudes at the time, I acknowledge the likelihood of historical bias, whether in small groups or more widespread across [NSW Police].
“I can assure the community there are policies, procedures, and systematic checkpoints in place today that negate inaction due to bias.”
Crandell paid his respects to victims and acknowledged “the compassion and strength of the LGBTIQ community for their perseverance in the fight for justice.”
“On behalf of the NSW Police Force – I acknowledge an absolute requirement to never let history repeat,” he said.
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