‘Guilty. I’m guilty’: Australian man pleads to 1988 cliff top murder of gay American mathematician

SYDNEY, Australia — An Australian man accused of pushing or forcing a gay American man off a 164-foot cliff in 1988 has pleaded guilty to the murder, which authorities said was one in a string of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Scott Phillip White, 50, faces life in prison for the murder of Scott Johnson, a 27-year-old mathematician found dead Dec. 10, 1988. White is scheduled to be sentenced in May, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The newspaper reported that White’s defense team was stunned Jan. 10 when their client, who was in the New South Wales Supreme Court for a pretrial hearing, blurted out that he was guilty of the murder.

“Guilty. I’m guilty. Guilty,” White shouted as a court officer read out the murder charge against him.

Multiple news outlets reported that his attorneys tried desperately to withdraw the plea, but Justice Helen Wilson ruled his plea was acceptable. Wilson said White was “very emphatic” in his statement.

The confessed killer spoke out “in a manner which was very determined and very firm, and using a loud and clear voice,” the judge stated, according to the Morning Herald.

>> Related story: Man charged in 1988 cold case killing of gay American who plunged from Australian cliff

White told his lawyers he appreciated their efforts but said, “I can’t handle it,” the newspaper reported.

Wilson formally accepted White’s guilty plea Jan. 13.

Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson, told Australian news media that the guilty plea was a relief after 33 years of fighting for justice. He told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio that White’s outburst appeared to take everyone in the courtroom by surprise.

“The police were sure they had the right person but you’re never sure until you hear those words from the person themselves,” Steve Johnson said. “Then suddenly, I know who killed my brother.”

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Scott Johnson was one of dozens of young men believed to have been killed because of their real or perceived homosexuality over a span of about 25 years in Australia. According to The Associated Press, a 2018 review of 88 suspicious deaths in Sydney that occurred from 1976 to 2000 revealed that 27 of the dead men likely were slain by youth gangs who specifically targeted gay men.

The Johnson brothers, who grew up in Los Angeles, were best friends. As adults, Steve Johnson relocated across the country to the Boston area, while his brother moved to Sydney in 1986 after meeting his Australian boyfriend, Michael Noone.

Both Noone and Steve Johnson said the mathematician, who had just completed his doctorate at Australian National University, was happy in the days before he died.

“Scott and I were as close as two brothers could be,” Steve Johnson told ABC News in the U.S. in 2014. “He was a brilliant, idealistic young man. The day he died, he had just finished the final proof for his math Ph.D. He had just gotten off the phone with his professor, who had congratulated him.”

Nevertheless, when Scott Johnson’s naked body was found mangled on the rocks at the base of a cliff at Blue Fish Point, near Manly’s North Head, authorities ruled that his death was a suicide. His clothing lay neatly at the top of the cliff.

Neither Noone nor Steve Johnson believed that he would have taken his own life.

“I flew to Canberra, where Scott was living with his partner,” Johnson told the Morning Herald last week. “And we drove up to Manly police station, where we were told the case had already been closed.

“The investigating team consisted of a couple of young constables, not detectives. One told me straight up, ‘This is where people go to jump, especially homosexuals.’”

A string of suspected gay hate crimes during that same time frame led him and Noone to believe otherwise. Unable to convince police officials, however, the men were forced to let their suspicions go for the moment.

Steve Johnson would continue to push authorities for a new inquest, particularly after he learned of a 2005 investigation into the deaths of three gay men on the cliffs at Bondi. A couple of years later, he hired former Newsweek investigative reporter Dan Glick to look into his brother’s death.

“I met a man who had been stabbed up there,” Glick told the Morning Herald. “I turned up reports of more than a dozen men who were known gay bashers in the northern beaches around the time of Scott’s death. What I couldn’t figure out, and still can’t understand, is why police at the time pretended not to know any of this or make any possible connection to Scott’s death.”

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A second inquest in June 2012 ended with an “open finding,” indicating that authorities were still unsure of Scott Johnson’s manner of death.

The (Australian) ABC News reported that the coroner at that time, Carmel Forbes, overturned the suicide ruling because the cliff where Scott Johnson died had been a “gay beat,” or a spot where gay men met up for sex. By 2012, there was also growing evidence that gay men had been the targets of extreme violence in the 1980s and 1990s.

Forbes said, however, that there was insufficient evidence to determine if Scott Johnson died of suicide, homicide or “misadventure,” the network said.

“The matter was referred for a third inquest and, in 2017, the then-NSW coroner, Michael Barnes, found that Mr. Johnson 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,” a New South Wales Police news release said.

After the third inquest, NWS police Commissioner Mick Fuller met with Steve Johnson to discuss the case before selecting a “specialist team of detectives” to investigate Scott Johnson’s death. Steve Johnson previously said in a statement that Fuller, at that time, pledged to fully investigate the death as a homicide.

Watch Steve Johnson speak about White’s arrest below.

In 2018, a reward of $1 million Australian, or about $647,000 in American dollars, was offered for information about Scott Johnson’s murder. In March 2020, Steve Johnson pledged to match that amount.

That was when an unidentified witness came forward with information regarding the homicide. The tip ultimately led to White’s arrest in May 2020.

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Police theorized that the then-18-year-old White met Scott Johnson at a hotel in Manly before taking the 15- or 20-minute walk to the cliff. Authorities believe Johnson took his clothes off for a sexual encounter, at which point White physically assaulted him and pushed him, or caused him to fall to his death.

Steve Johnson hopes the resolution of his brother’s case can spur New South Wales officials to continue probing LGBTQ hate crimes that took place between 1970 and 2010. The wave of murders peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Morning Herald reported.

“I do think (the case) provides an extraordinary model for solving the murders of other gay men,” Johnson said. “It proves these cases can be solved.”

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