Los Angeles Times

Guilty plea in ’88 slaying of gay man

Caltech graduate Scott Johnson was pushed from a cliff in Australia in a longunsolv­ed hate crime.

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CANBERRA, Australia — A Sydney man admitted to police that he killed American mathematic­ian Scott Johnson in 1988 by pushing the 27-year-old off a cliff in what prosecutor­s say was an anti-gay hate crime, an Australian court heard Monday.

Scott White, 51, appeared in the New South Wales state Supreme Court for a sentencing hearing after he pleaded guilty in January to the murder of Johnson, a Los Angeles-born Canberra resident, whose death at the base of a North Head cliff was initially dismissed by police as suicide.

White will be sentenced by Justice Helen Wilson on Tuesday. He faces a potential sentence of life in prison.

“I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge,” White said in a recorded police interview in 2020 that was played in court.

White said he lied when he had earlier told police that he tried to grab Johnson and prevent his fatal fall. Johnson, a graduate of Caltech, was a doctoral student at Australian National University.

A coroner ruled in 2017 that Johnson “fell from the clifftop as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentifi­ed persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.”

The coroner also found that gangs of men roamed various Sydney locations in search of gay men to assault, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some people were also robbed.

A different coroner had ruled in 1989 that Johnson, an out gay man, had taken his own life, but a second coroner in 2012 could not determine the circumstan­ces of his death. The 2017 ruling came after a third inquest.

Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson of Boston, maintained pressure for further investigat­ion and offered his own reward of 1 million Australian dollars ($704,000) for informatio­n. White was charged in 2020, and police say the reward will probably be collected.

White’s former wife, Helen, told the court that her husband at the time “bragged” to their children of beating up gay men at the clifftop, which was a wellknown assignatio­n spot.

Helen White said she read a newspaper report in 2008 about Johnson’s death and asked her husband if he was responsibl­e.

“It’s not my fault,” Scott White allegedly replied. “The dumb [expletive] ran off the cliff.”

“I said, ‘It is if you chased him,’ ” Helen White told the court. She said her husband did not reply.

Under cross-examinatio­n, Helen White denied she had been aware of the reward for informatio­n on Johnson’s murder when she reported her ex-husband to the police in 2019. She said she became aware of a reward only when Steve Johnson doubled the sum in 2020.

Steve Johnson said in his victim impact statement that, “with a vicious push, Mr. White took Scott and he vanished.”

Johnson added that his brother, “who once told me he could never hurt someone even in self-defense, died in terror.”

Johnson said he appreciate­d White’s guilty plea.

“If he had turned himself in after his violent action, I would have had a little more sympathy. If he had grasped Scott’s hand and pulled him to safety, I would owe him everlastin­g gratitude,” the brother said, his voice choked with emotion.

Scott Johnson’s sisters, Terry and Rebecca Johnson; his partner, Michael Noone; and Steve Johnson’s wife, Rosemarie, also gave victim impact statements.

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