Australian Man Sentenced for Murdering Gay American More Than 30 Years After Victim Fell From Cliff

The killer, Scott White, told police he was gay and was afraid his allegedly homophobic family member would find out

Scott Johnson
Photo: NSW Police

An Australian man was convicted of murdering an American man in 1988 who was targeted for being gay.

In 1988, Scott Johnson, a mathematician studying at the Australian National University, was found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Sydney. Initially, the 27-year-old's death was ruled a suicide, but his family demanded a more thorough investigation.

It would be more than 20 years before another coroner returned with an "open finding," meaning the coroner could not explain how Johnson died, according to the Associated Press.

Finally, in 2017, another coroner reported, "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," the New South Wales Police stated in a press release.

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The following year, the police department raised its reward from $100,000 to $1 million for any information leading to an arrest. Scott's brother, Steve Johnson, matched the reward with an additional $1 million, the police stated.

"We now live in a more tolerant and open society — particularly here and in the United States — where societies enable their LGBTIQ communities to be their true selves, live safely and unlock their full potential," Steve said in a statement at the time.

"I wish Scott had been afforded the same opportunity, and every effort I put into helping find his killer(s) is also to acknowledge that bullying and gay-hate crime will not be tolerated in our community."

Steve Johnson, right, with his sisters, Terry, left, and Rebecca and his wife, Rebecca, second right, arrive at the Supreme Court in Sydney, for a sentencing hearing in the murder of Scott Johnson, Steve, Terry and Rebecca's brother. Scott White appeared in the New South Wales state Supreme Court for a sentencing hearing after he pleaded guilty in January to the murder of the Los Angeles-born Canberra resident Scott Johnson, whose death at the base of a North Head cliff was initially dismissed by police as suicide
Scott Johnson's Family. Rick Rycroft/AP/Shutterstock

But police had already started investigating a lead. In 2019, Helen White told police her husband Scott White had bragged about beating gay men, and said the only good gay man was a dead gay man, the AP reported.

White was arrested and charged in connection with Johnson's death. White told police that he was gay and frightened that his allegedly homophobic family member would find out, the AP added.

"The offender hit Dr. Johnson, causing him to stumble backwards and leave the cliff edge," Judge Helen Wilson said during a sentencing hearing for White, who pleaded guilty in January to avoid a life sentence in prison.

"In those seconds when he must have realized what was happening to him, Dr. Johnson must have been terrified, aware that he would strike the rocks below and conscious of his fate," Wilson stated. "It was a terrible death."

Scott White, now 51, was sentenced to 12 years and seven months on Monday in an Australian courtroom. He must serve at least eight years and three months before he can be considered for parole.

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