Australian man admits pushing gay American mathematician off a cliff in 1988

An Australian man has confessed to police murdering a gay American mathematician in 1988 by pushing him off a cliff in what prosecutors described as a hate crime, a court heard Monday.

Scott White, 51, appeared in New South Wales State Supreme Court for a sentencing hearing after pleading guilty in January to the murder of Scott Johnson, 27, in Sydney.

The victim was a Los Angeles native who was pursuing a doctorate in mathematics at the Australian National University and was living in Canberra at the time.

Prosecutor Brett Hatfield said specific details of the murder were not known and White’s accounts had varied.

White had met Johnson at a bar in suburban Manly and Johnson had stripped naked on top of the cliff before dying, Hatfield said. He said the seriousness of the murder was significantly high because it was motivated by the sexuality of the victim.

Johnson’s death in the fall was initially dismissed by Sydney police as a suicide.

White faces life in prison when sentenced by Judge Helen Wilson on Tuesday.

Scott Johnson was killed on a popular gay dating site in 1988 by Scott White who initially claimed he had tried to prevent the man’s death.
HANDOUT/NEW SOUTH WALES POLICE/AFP via Getty Images
Scott White after his arrest for the murder of Scott Johnson in 1988.
Scott White after his arrest for the murder of Scott Johnson in 1988.
New South Wales Police

“I pushed a guy. He overstepped the mark,” White said in a taped 2020 interview with police that played in court on Monday.

White said in the interview that he lied when he told police earlier that he had tried to grab Johnson and prevent his fatal fall.

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

Police search a headland in Sydney on May 12, 2020, following an arrest in connection with the death of a man in 1988.
Police search a headland in Sydney on May 12, 2020, following an arrest in connection with the death of a man in 1988.
Image AAP/Dan Hambrechts

The coroner also discovered that gangs of homophobic men were scouring Sydney for gay men to mug or rob, resulting in the deaths of some 80 people.

A coroner ruled in 1989 that Johnson, who was openly gay, took his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.

His brother Steve Johnson, who lives in Boston, has spent years seeking justice for Scott and has offered his own reward of more than $700,000 for information leading to an arrest.

Steve Johnson (right) arrives with his family to watch his brother's sentencing at the Supreme Court in Sydney.
Steve Johnson (right) arrives with his family to watch the sentencing of his brother’s confessed killer at Sydney Supreme Court.
AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

White was charged in May 2020 and police say the reward will likely be collected.

White’s ex-wife Helen White told court her then-husband ‘bragged’ to their children about beating up gay men on the cliffs at North Head, a gay hangout popular.

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

According to Helen White, he told the court that her husband at the time
According to Helen White, her then-husband ‘bragged’ to their children about beating gay men on the North Head cliffs.
EPA/NSW POLICY

“It’s not my fault,” Scott White reportedly replied. “The mute [expletive] ran away from the cliff.

“I said, ‘That’s if you sue him,'” Helen White told the court. She said her husband didn’t answer.

In cross-examination, Helen White denied knowing about the reward for information about Johnson’s murder when she reported her ex-husband to the police in 2019. She said she only learned about the money when the victim’s brother doubled the sum in 2020.

Steve Johnson said in his victim impact statement: ‘With a vicious push, Mr White picked up Scott and he disappeared.

Steve Johnson seen with his family during the trial.
Steve Johnson seen with his family during the trial.
AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

“That man [Scott Johnson] who once told me he could never hurt anyone, even in self-defense, died of terror,” the brother added.

Steve Johnson said he welcomed White’s guilty plea.

“If he had surrendered after his violent act, I would have had a little more sympathy. If he had grabbed Scott’s hand and pulled him to safety, I would owe him eternal gratitude,” said the brother choking back his tears.

White’s attorney, Belinda Rigg, said her client was gay and feared her homophobic brother would find out.

The victim was a Los Angeles native who was pursuing a doctorate in mathematics at the Australian National University and was living in Canberra at the time.
The victim, Scott Johnson, was a Los Angeles native who was pursuing a doctorate in mathematics at the Australian National University and was living in Canberra at the time.
HANDOUT/NEW SOUTH WALES POLICE/AFP via Getty Images

In January, White repeatedly shouted in court during a preliminary hearing that he was guilty, after denying the crime.

His lawyers will appeal this plea to the Court of Criminal Appeal and hope that he will be acquitted at trial.

With post wires

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