Brother’s crusade ends with man being charged over cold case murder of Scott Johnson

For 32 years, American internet pioneer Steve Johnson has held firm to the view that his little brother was killed during a mysterious visit to the cliffs of Manly in Sydney in December 1988.

Initially satisfied with the findings of a first coronial inquest which said the mathematician had committed suicide, he became sceptical after reading headlines about a string of suspected gay hate crimes in Sydney’s east in the 1980s.

His successful urgings for a second inquest in 2012 returned an inconclusive verdict.

The coroner claimed it was impossible to know for sure whether Mr Johnson’s death was suicide, misadventure or murder. Steve Johnson remained undeterred.

Then, on November 30, 2017, NSW coroner Michael Barnes told a packed courtroom he was convinced the then 27-year-old had been the victim of a gay hate crime. Steve Johnson was elated.

When Scott White was charged with the murder of Scott Johnson yesterday, Steve Johnson expressed the vindication you’d expect from a man who’s been on a crusade to prove that his brother did not take his own life.

In a video message from the US he said “this is a very emotional day, it’s emotional for me and my family”.

Scott Johnson, whose body was found at the base of Manly’s North Head.(NSW Police)

Shortly after his brother’s death, Steve Johnson commercialised the world-first algorithm that made it possible to send photos over the internet.

The Johnson brothers had worked on the development together.

That discovery and its eventual sale to AOL made Steve Johnson an enormously wealthy and respected entrepreneur.

He said a man being charged with his brother’s murder was emotional on many levels.

“For my three kids who never got to know their uncle and admire him not just because of his brilliance but because he courageously lived his life the way he wanted to.”

Extensive police operation

The arrest of the 49-year-old man from Sydney’s inner western suburb of Lane Cove came after an extensive police operation.

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NSW Police arrested a 49-year-old man at Lane Cove on Monday morning

The ABC understands that police will allege the then 18-year-old met Scott Johnson at a hotel in Manly before heading to what was a popular gay beat at the time — a place men met for casual sex.

The scene of Mr Johnson’s last moments is a 15-to-20 minute walk from the central hub of Manly through a car park and up a steep dirt track past shrubbery and a wall that shields the site from the view of any passersby.

At Bluefish Point, Scott Johnson is believed to have removed his clothes at which time Mr White is alleged to have panicked and punched him causing Mr Johnson to lose his balance and fall to his death.

Police later found Mr Johnson’s clothes neatly folded on the rocks about 10 metres from the edge of the cliff.

Scott Johnson's clothes were found folded at the top of the cliff.
Scott Johnson’s clothes were found folded at the top of the cliff in 1988.(Supplied: NSW Police)

Frustrated by the lack of progress on the case, Steve Johnson lobbied NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller to take the job of finding his brother’s killer away from the homicide squad.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans from the sex crimes unit was given the task.

In March he told reporters the investigation had narrowed in on a “particular individual”.

About the same time, Steve Johnson announced that he’d matched the police reward of $1 million to entice anyone with evidence to come forward.

Informant led to arrest

Scott White was not known to police before an informant came forward with information that led to his arrest.

In 2015 Strike Force Macnamir identified several potential suspects who were all investigated and discounted by investigators.

They included the fisherman who found Mr Johnson’s body and various members of three known gangs who’d previously been questioned for gay hate crimes in NSW.

Scott Johnson had moved to Sydney in 1986 after meeting his partner, Australian man Michael Noone while both were studying at Cambridge University in the UK.

They’d been together more than four years when Mr Johnson died.

At the third inquest, Mr Noone spoke of a previous suicide attempt by Mr Johnson during a visit to the US.

He’d sent Mr Noone a letter about feeling guilty for sleeping with other men. He’d written about wanting to jump to his death off the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Scott Johnson’s brother describes arrest development as “emotional”

He told the court: “This was the period of HIV and AIDS. There was enormous pressure, health pressure and survival pressure to remain in monogamous relationships.”

Coroner Michael Barnes also heard from psychiatric nurse, Walter Grealy who had been a guest at Scott Johnson’s 27th birthday party five days before he disappeared.

While swimming in the backyard pool with Mr Johnson, Mr Grealy said Mr Johnson told him he had twice had thoughts of jumping from a bridge.

In its final, 439 page report, Strike Force Macnamir identified 35 deaths, not including that of Scott Johnson, as occurring at North Head between 1986 and 2000 with bodies found at the base of the cliffs.

Five of those deaths were recorded as accidents and 30 were unequivocally recorded as suicides because there were notes, witnesses, former attempts or long histories of mental illness involved.

Twenty-eight were men. Two were women.

Five of the deaths were recorded as the result of “misadventure” which is police-speak for accidental death.

Scott and Steve Johnson as boys in California
Scott and Steve Johnson grew up in California.(Supplied: Steve Johnson)

Despite the so called “epidemic” of gay hate crimes, then Detective Chief Inspector Pamela Young who led that investigation reported just eight deaths in the unsolved homicide caseload that might have been motivated by gay hate.

None of them had occurred at North Head or in Manly.

Criminologists interviewed by police concluded that the rough and rocky terrain made it improbable that criminals would risk their own lives to commit acts of gay hate at North Head.

A police source told the ABC there are now five unsolved murders in NSW that are being investigated as possible gay hate crimes including the death of Mr Johnson. His remains the only one at North Head or Manly.

Complaints from Johnson family

Ms Young left the police force shortly after an interview with the ABC in which she criticised Steve Johnson for what she saw as his undue influence in the case.

Constant complaints by the Johnson family about Ms Young prompted an examination of the investigation by the NSW Crime Commission.

That appraisal concluded that Ms Young and her team had been “thorough” and “comprehensive” in their lines of inquiry.

Police standing on a cliff edge.
NSW Police searching at North Head on Tuesday.(ABC News: Mark Reddie)

In 2015, Steve Johnson told the ABC his brother had everything to live for.

He was moments from collecting his PhD in mathematics and had a bright future in Australia and the United States.

Commissioner Fuller praised the Johnson family for their determination, which he said “inspired” his officers.

“Making that phone call this morning is a career highlight — Steve has fought so hard for so many years, and it has been an honour be part of his fight for justice,” Commissioner Fuller said.

Steve Johnson also recognised the significance of yesterday’s arrest for the wider gay community.

“I hope it opens the door to resolve some of the other mysterious deaths, of men who have not yet received justice.”

Scott White will face Paramatta court this morning.

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