The New South Wales Coroners Court has paved the way for a new investigation into the 1988 death of an American gay man in Sydney.
A 1989 inquest ruled the death of 27 year old Scott Johnson to be a suicide despite his body being found naked on the rocks below an area where gay men were known to sunbathe and meet for sex near Manly’s Shelly Beach.
Johnson had no history of depression and had been told only that morning that he was well on his way to achieving his doctorate in mathematics from the Australian National University.
He had also been looking forward to meeting his brother Steve’s baby daughter.
Johnson had a promising career ahead of him having studied at the California Institute of Technology, the University of California Berkeley, and Cambridge University, and had worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Johnson was living with his boyfriend’s family in the Sydney suburb of Lane Cove at the time and had been seen alive and well by them earlier in the morning. A friend who called him later that day heard no signs of distress.
Two days later his body was found on the rocks by a group of fishermen.
Johnson’s clothes and personal affects were found neatly folded above the cliffs, and no note was found.
A 2004 coronial investigation looked into a pattern of homophobic bashings and murders on Sydney’ southern shore in the late 80’s and early 90’s but did not delve into whether similar violence had been occurring north of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Many of the murders had been initially dismissed as suicides by police.
Steve Johnson has been pushing for a fresh investigation into his brother’s death since 2004 and investigations he has funded have resulted in other gay men coming forward to say they were attacked in the area, including one who survived a stabbing at the same spot in 1986.
After reviewing the evidence Deputy State Coroner Carmel Forbes found that suicide was not the only explanation that should have been considered in Scott Johnson’s death.
‘The possibilities that Mr Johnson was the victim of a gay hate crime similar to those that occurred in Bondi or that he fell are also available explanations to the circumstances that surrounded his death,’ she told the court.
‘I find that the evidence adduced in Mr Johnson’s death does not enable me to make a funding as to how he fell off the cliff and I make an open finding.’
Forbes referred the case to the New South Wales Police’s cold cases unit.
Steve Johnson told Gay Star News that he had been ‘exhilarated and happy’ when he heard the coroner’s verdict.
"At last we’re taking a step towards the truth as to what happened to my brother,’ Johnson said.
He said he was now very confident that a proper investigation would occur.
‘We’ve got a lot of people interested in the case now – police as well as friends and my brothers associates here in town who are all helping,’ Johnson said.
‘One of the things that’s happened in the last seven years that we’ve been pressing to have my brother’s case reviewed is we’ve found lots of people who have become passionate about this case so I’m very confident that now its been turned over to the cold cases unit that we’ll get a thorough investigation.’
Johnson said he was hopeful that a new investigation might also shed light on other attacks that had happened in the area around the same time.
‘Just in the course of the last year we’ve spoken to dozens of people who’ve been victims of gay hate violence or who are the family members of victims so we know that there is lots of crime that has gone unreported and we want that investigated and we think this is going to shine a light on the almost epidemic that’s happened in the past in terms of gay hate violence.’