Sydney man gets 12 years in prison for pushing gay Caltech graduate off cliff in 1988

Relatives of slain man embracing outside courthouse
Steve Johnson, the brother of Scott Johnson, who was killed in Australia in 1988, hugs his wife, Rosemarie, outside a Sydney courthouse Monday.
(Rick Rycroft / Associated Press)

An Australian man was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison Tuesday for the 1988 murder of a Los Angeles native who fell off a Sydney clifftop that was known as a gay meeting place.

The death of mathematician Scott Johnson was initially called a suicide, but his family pressed for further investigation. A coroner in 2017 found a number of assaults, some fatal, in which the victims had been targeted because they were thought to be gay.

Scott White, 51, pleaded guilty in January to murdering Johnson and could have been sentenced to up to life in prison.


Justice Helen Wilson said she did not find beyond reasonable doubt that the murder was an anti-gay hate crime, an aggravating factor that would have led to a longer sentence. She also said she followed more lenient sentencing patterns that were in place in New South Wales state in the late 1980s.

White must serve at least eight years and three months in prison before he can be considered for parole.

White was 18 and homeless when he met Johnson, a 27-year-old Caltech graduate living and studying in Australia, at a bar in suburban Manly in December 1988 and went with him to a nearby clifftop at North Head.

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White’s former wife, Helen White, told police in 2019 that her then-husband had bragged about beating gay men and had said the only good gay man was a dead gay man.

She told the court Monday that her husband had said Johnson had run off the cliff.

Scott White told police that he was himself gay and frightened that his homophobic brother would find out.


Wilson said it was not possible to draw any conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt about what had happened at the clifftop.

“The offender hit Dr. Johnson, causing him to stumble backwards and leave the cliff edge,” Wilson said.

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“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 added. “It was a terrible death.”

Wilson did not accept the defense lawyers’ argument that Helen White had been motivated to report her ex-husband to police by a reward.

Under cross-examination Monday, Helen White denied that she had been aware of a reward worth 1 million Australian dollars (about $700,000) for information on Johnson’s death when she went to police in 2019. She said she became aware of a reward only when the victim’s brother, Steve Johnson, doubled the sum in 2020.

Outside court, Steve Johnson, a resident of Boston, thanked prosecutors and the Australian judicial system for ensuring that White was sent to prison.


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“We didn’t get compensation for Scott this week, but what Scott got was dignity,” Johnson told reporters.

Younger sister Rebecca Johnson said she was satisfied with the sentence.

“Today I feel like we’ve had answers and we’ve had justice, and that’s for our brother and that’s for gay men who were bashed or killed in that era,” she said.

White had a record of violent crime before and after the murder but had not committed any offense since 2008.

“It should be understood that the court is not sentencing a violent and reckless young man for a targeted attack on a gay man,” Wilson said.

“Because of the lapse of time, the offender is no longer the same angry young man who raised his fists to another on the edge of a cliff. Neither is the court imposing a sentence for a crime motivated by hatred for a particular sector of society. The evidence is too slender to support that,” Wilson added.

She said a sentence for the same crime today would be “much higher.”

White’s lawyers have appealed his conviction and hope he will be acquitted of the murder charge in a jury trial.

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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 attack, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some men were also robbed.

A coroner ruled in 1989 that Johnson had taken his own life. A second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.


Besides Caltech, Johnson studied at Cambridge University in England before moving to Australia in 1986 to live with his Australian partner, Michael Noone.

They lived in Canberra, the capital, where Johnson studied at Australian National University, which awarded him a posthumous PhD. He was staying at Noone’s parents’ Sydney home at the time of his death.