Scott Johnson’s legacy
Comic relief was not to be expected amid the enduring mystery surrounding Scott Johnson’s death. Bryan Butson, nevertheless, brought a little laughter to a Sydney courtroom this month with a droll observation about his knowledge of gay culture – 28 years and four days after he and his fishing companions stumbled upon the naked body of Johnson, a 27-year-old American, at the base of North Head near Manly, Sydney.
Butson, a retired Australian Army captain, was aboard his yacht when the New South Wales Coroner’s Court called him. State Coroner Michael Barnes had just launched an extraordinary third inquest in an attempt to discover, once and for all, how Johnson died. Did the brilliant mathematician, close to completing his PhD in Australia, jump? Did he fall? Or was he pushed or perhaps frightened off that 60-metre cliff?
While Johnson’s family is convinced Scott was murdered amid an “epidemic” of gay-hate assaults, Butson is compelled by the suicide theory. “I’m pretty sure everybody was thinking he was a jumper,” he told the court, recalling his contact with police on that Saturday, December 10, 1988.
He had led an officer to the cliff top near Blue Fish Point. Here Butson had found Johnson’s clothes about 10 metres from the edge. As he remembered, they were “very pedantically folded” with a pen placed diagonally on top. The officer had remarked: “Well, the note’s gone.” A “cursory” search found no suicide note. None would ever emerge.
But was Butson aware at the time that this area was a gay beat? “In 1988,” he replied, “I thought a gay beat was the Village People singing the ‘YMCA’.”
Butson had not known this area near Blue Fish Point was a place gay men met for casual sex. He wasn’t alone. Four policemen and a forensic pathologist who were there that day told the inquest they had no idea it was a beat; nor had the police known that a Manly detective was investigating a local gang of gay bashers and had a case in court that week.
“Had I known that [it was a beat]I would have kept an open mind to how the incident occurred,” Troy Hardie told the court. Hardie was the young Manly constable in charge of the initial inquiry on December 10. In a report for the coroner dated the same day, before he had spoken to Johnson’s family, Hardie wrote: “It appears as though the deceased committed suicide by jumping from the headland.”
Hardie never went to the cliff top but trusted his colleagues’ observation that there was no sign of a struggle. Former constable Robert Ludlow moved Scott’s clothes before they could be photographed as found. “There was probably some training around that,” Ludlow told the court, though he couldn’t recall any formal protocol.
It would have been preferable to photograph them undisturbed, confirmed Philip Flogel, the physical evidence officer. He believed he would have asked to be taken to the cliff top, but that did not happen and he couldn’t recall why. Flogel photographed the body from a helicopter but there was no forensic examination at the scene.
Forensic pathologist Johan Duflou conducted the autopsy four days later, armed with Troy Hardie’s report marked “no suspicious circumstances”. Duflou saw no “alarm bells” suggesting foul play, and told the inquest he stood by his conclusion that the massive injuries were consistent with a fall. But he agreed with John Agius, SC, counsel assisting the Johnson family, that it was possible the fall injuries masked others. “Can I exclude an assault? No, I can’t.”
Had he known the area was a gay beat, Duflou would “at least” have arranged to have a crime scene officer at the autopsy.
Counsel assisting the inquest, Kristina Stern, SC, stressed this was not an inquiry into police failures. She and Agius posed a persistent question, nonetheless: would they have acted differently had they known it was a gay beat?
Police now acknowledge it was a beat, but three months after Johnson died, Manly’s then Detective Sergeant Doreen Cruickshank advised the first inquest that she did not believe the area was frequented by gay men. If it were, she said, it would also have been frequented by people who would “assault them or rob them or cause them some harm”.
That is what was happening at other beats, including Marks Park on the Bondi–Tamarama cliffs.
Derrick Hand, the first coroner to consider Johnson’s case, concluded it was a suicide. Scott’s older brother, Steve, never believed it. In those early days, nor did Scott’s partner of five years, an academic who lived with him in Canberra.
In 2005, the partner contacted Steve Johnson. He wanted to alert Johnson to a coronial finding that condemned “shameful” police conclusions, which said two gay men fell to their deaths in separate accidents at Marks Park in 1989. Coroner Jacqueline Milledge found barman John Russell was thrown from the cliff, that newsreader Ross Warren was also murdered, and that missing gay Frenchman Gilles Mattaini likely met a similar fate.
“Maybe that’s what happened to Scottie,” Steve Johnson recalls his brother’s partner saying. By now the Boston-based Johnson was wealthy, having developed the algorithm that made it possible to deliver pictures over phone lines, the earliest form of digital “streaming media”. Johnson launched his own investigation, which he is funding himself.
He got help from lawyer Sue Thompson, the NSW Police Force’s former gay liaison co-ordinator, and former homicide detective Steve Page. Thompson had assisted Page when he led Operation Taradale, the investigation that exposed police failings at Marks Park.
Johnson won a second inquest, which threw out the suicide ruling and led to Strike Force Macnamir, headed by the unsolved homicide team’s Detective Chief Inspector Pamela Young. The publicity generated by Johnson also led to Operation Parabell, a separate and still current police review of 88 deaths between 1976 and 1997, which Sue Thompson and criminologist Stephen Tomsen believed may have been gay-hate crimes.
Homicide police are highly sceptical about that number. This is reflected in Young’s 439-page report to the state coroner on Johnson’s death. She provides a summary of 30 of their “purported” unsolved gay-hate crimes. Young reports that only eight are possible or probable gay-hate murders. She doesn’t count Scott Johnson among them.
After reinvestigating his death for two years, Young favours the original suicide theory. She gives weight to his partner’s recollection that in 1985 Johnson told him he had considered jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge when he mistakenly believed he may have contracted AIDS through a casual sexual encounter. The partner, having long rejected suicide, now accepts it is possible Johnson went to the North Head beat seeking sex and, feeling “remorse” and “disgust”, leapt to his death.
Young finds there is no evidence that any gay bashers operated at this beat. Agius expects the inquest to hear testimony from a man who confesses he went there as a teenager to act as the “bait” to attract victims for his gay-bashing mates. His mates were convicted of gay bashings elsewhere, including at nearby Reef Beach, but Young believes this man is lying.
At the request of State Coroner Barnes, Young was removed from the case in April last year. Barnes feared she undermined public confidence in her impartiality during an interview on the ABC’s Lateline, in which she accused former police minister Mike Gallacher of “kowtowing” to the Johnsons by pressuring police to put Scott’s case ahead of hundreds of other unsolved deaths. Gallacher vehemently denied it. Young, when asked if the original police investigation was flawed, said: “Not at all. It was to the standard of the day.”
Sidelined, she watched from the public gallery last week as the inquest drilled down into apparent flaws. Also in court was Steve Johnson.
They heard from Michael Allen, who has come forward to say he had a brief affair with Johnson in the months before his death. They also heard Scott Johnson’s thesis supervisor, Professor Ross Street, who recalled he was happy on December 8, 1988 – the last day he was seen alive. Over the phone, Street had assured Johnson his new solution for a problem would secure his PhD.
Walter Grealy, a psychiatric nurse, gave evidence about a conversation he had with Johnson seven days before his body was found. The two were at a pool party when Johnson made an “odd” remark. Grealy recalled him saying he had twice thought about jumping from a bridge – in San Francisco and, as far as Grealy remembered, from either Sydney’s Iron Cove or Lane Cove bridge.
Grealy regarded it as attention-seeking, referencing a “historical thing”. He could not remember discussing beats with Johnson, but said it was possible. Johnson had given him his phone number – not “flirtatious” but perhaps seeking friendship. They did not meet in the days that followed, Grealy said.
Bryan Butson described looking over the cliff edge to Johnson’s body. It was the body of a strong, athletic man – no “village weakling”. Had he been assaulted, Butson speculated, “he would have fought like a thrashing machine… There would have been more than one body down there.”
One body, but many theories. The state coroner will strive for the facts when the inquest reconvenes in June.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "Scott’s legacy". Subscribe here.