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Man To Be Sentenced For Pushing Gay Man Off Cliff 34 Years Ago

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Man To Be Sentenced For Pushing Gay Man Off Cliff 34 Years Ago

A man from Sydney is awaiting sentencing after admitting to murdering a gay American man 34 years ago.

In 1988, 27-year-old American mathematician Scott Johnson was found dead at the bottom of North Head cliff in Sydney.

Johnson's death was originally ruled as a suicide.

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However, in January, 51-year-old Scott White pleaded guilty to the murder of the Canberra resident who was born in Los Angeles.

On Monday, White appeared in New South Wales state Supreme Court for his sentencing hearing.

Scott Johnson's death was originally ruled as a suicide. Credit: New South Wales Police
Scott Johnson's death was originally ruled as a suicide. Credit: New South Wales Police

The court heard a recording from a 2020 police interview with White.

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In the clip, White was heard saying: "I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge."

White had previously told police he tried to stop Johnson from falling by grabbing hold of him, however, in the recording he admitted he lied.

Scott White admitted to pushing Scott Johnson off the cliff in a 2020 interview with police. Credit: New South Wales Police
Scott White admitted to pushing Scott Johnson off the cliff in a 2020 interview with police. Credit: New South Wales Police

In 1989 it was initially ruled by a coroner that Johnson had taken his own life.

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Johnson's brother's wife stated in court that the initial failures of the police to investigate the death properly were 'indefensible and inhumane'.

Johnson's younger sister, Rebecca, also reflected the initial ruling of suicide 'made no sense'.

In 2012, another coroner ruled the death as inconclusive.

However, in 2017, a coroner resolved 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'.

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Scott Johnson's family gave victim reports at Scott White's sentencing hearing on Monday. Credit: PA Images
Scott Johnson's family gave victim reports at Scott White's sentencing hearing on Monday. Credit: PA Images

Gangs of men were reported as being prevalent around various locations in the city, searching for gay men to either rob, assault or kill – the cliff a particularly popular place for gay men to meet.

The court heard from White's ex-wife Helen that White 'bragged' about beating gay men up at the clifftop to the pair's children.

When questioned by his wife about Johnson's death – which she read about in a 2008 newspaper report – White reportedly stated: "It's not my fault. The dumb c**t ran off the cliff."

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The court heard he allegedly failed to reply when she asked if he had 'chased him'.

Johnson's brother, Steve, offered a one million Australian dollar reward ($704,000) for any information surrounding the incident.

Helen White reported her ex-husband to the police in 2019.

However, she denied knowing about the reward until it was doubled in 2020.

Scott Johnson's brother, Steve, offered reward money for any information surrounding Scott's death. Credit: PA Images
Scott Johnson's brother, Steve, offered reward money for any information surrounding Scott's death. Credit: PA Images

White's account of the murder varied according to Prosecutor Brett Hatfield, however it was ascertained he first met Johnson in a nearby bar in Manly.

The pair then went to the clifftop where Johnson reportedly stripped.

Hatfield resolved the murder had been motivated by Johnson's sexuality. "This was a grave and serious murder which entailed a high degree of criminality," he said.

While White previously denied having murdered Johnson, he repeatedly yelled he was guilty in a pre-trial hearing in January.

In his victim impact statement, Steve Johnson noted: "With a vicious push, Mr. White took Scott and he vanished. This man [Scott Johnson] who once told me he could never hurt someone even in self-defence died in terror.

"If [White] 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."

Scott Johnson's victim statement described Scott White's 'vicious push'. Credit: PA Images
Scott Johnson's victim statement described Scott White's 'vicious push'. Credit: PA Images

Barrister Belinda Rigg, who is representing White, argued her client had only just turned 18 at the time of the murder and so should receive a lesser sentence.

Rigg also claimed White suffered from anxiety and panic attacks while in custody as a result of intellectual impairments, and that her client was gay himself and suffered while living with a homophobic brother and alcoholic parents in the 1980s.

White's lawyers have since revealed the 51-year-old's hopes of being acquitted after an appeal was filed last month in the Court of Criminal Appeals.

White's sentencing is set to take place tomorrow, 3 May. He will be sentenced by Justice Helen Wilson and faces a potential life sentence in prison.

Johnson's older sister, Terry, concluded: "The hateful person who killed Scott has been walking free on this earth for the past 33 years. Thirty-three years that he took away from my baby brother. I believe [White] deserves life in prison."

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact the LGBT Foundation on 0345 3 30 30 30, 10am–6pm Monday to Friday, or email [email protected] 

Featured Image Credit: New South Wales Police/Alamy

Topics: News, Crime, LGBTQ

Poppy Bilderbeck
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