When Steve Johnson learned that his brother’s naked body had been found at the base of a cliff across the other side of the world, he knew nothing about the dark secret behind Sydney’s glittering beach culture.
All Steve could do back in December 1988, 36 hours after he had learned of Scott Johnson’s death, was jump on a plane and fly from the US to Australia.
After he landed in Sydney, he was met with the blanket response from police: 27-year-old Scott, a PhD graduate student and mathematical prodigy, had jumped off a cliff in Manly in an act of suicide.
As he told ABC TV’s Australian Story, in a program which aired on Monday, “I said, ‘impossible’. He’d just finished his PhD that he’d been working on for five years.”
Steve Johnson would return to Australia several times, doggedly determined to prove his brother could not have killed himself.
Along the way, Steve and a team of supporters and investigators would learn of chillingly similar deaths in other coastal locations.
Bodies of young men were turning up at the bottom of cliffs, not only at Blue Fish Point where Scott had been found, but at another beautiful coastal spot in the harbour city’s east.
Or the men simply vanished, their bodies never to be found, at a place called Marks Park, which in the 1980s was a killing ground for a gang of youths aged as young as 15 hunting gay men.
When Scott Johnson died, he had left his clothes neatly folded at the top of Blue Fish Point.
“Took off his clothes, laid down, and so somebody probably walked up to Scott while he was there and proposed sex, proposed something,” Steve told Australian Story.
He began investigating whether Blue Fish Point, like Marks Park, was a known as a beat among Sydney’s gay community.
Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Australia in 1984.
In the two decades between the start of the 1970s and the end of the 1980s, up to 88 gay men in Sydney’s east and metro areas were documented to have disappeared in suspicious circumstances, or were the victims of murders.
In 1985, 27-year-old French national Gilles Mattaini was living in Bondi.
He was last seen walking along the coastal walking track at Tamarama on September 15 that year by a neighbour.
He was not reported missing until 2002.
Around 2.15am on Sunday, July 22, 1989, handsome newsreader Ross Warren was seen driving his Nissan Pulsar off towards Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
Warren, 25, was regarded as a talent at WIN Television in Wollongong, and destined for a glittering career.
He didn’t flaunt his sexuality, and was likely headed for what he thought would be a discreet encounter, but which would go horribly wrong.
At the time, two gangs were secretly operating around the very spot where Warren was headed, Marks Park.
It is now better known for the scenic spot of the coastal walk from Bondi to Coogee or the location of Sculpture By The Sea.
Back then, a police and coroner’s investigation would only reveal in 2002, it was a place where multiple men were savagely bashed, robbed and sometimes murdered.
One gang was called The Bondi Boys, also known as The Part Time Killers (PTK), with up to 30 members aged 15 to 18 who hung out at night on the Bondi-Tamarama walk near Mark’s Park.
The other was loosely known as the Tamarama Gang, with three members aged 16 to 17, who met up at night on the Bondi-Tamarama walk.
Ross Warren is believed to have died violently at the hands of one of these gangs in the early hours of July 22, 1989.
He never returned to the friend’s house in Sydney where he was staying, nor did he show up at WIN Television studios to go on air.
His body was never found, but his keys were located on the rocks below Marks Park.
On November 23, 1989, Bondi barman John Allan Russell’s body was discovered at base of the South Bondi cliff beneath Marks Park.
It is believed he was thrown from the cliff.
Rusted iron water pipes allegedly used as bars to beat him with were found near his body.
In July, 1990, Thai student Kritchikorn Rattanajaturathaporn’s bloodied and battered body was found wedged in the rocks at the bottom of the Marks Parks sea cliff at South Bondi.
Police later determined three youths had found Rattanajurathaporn and his companion, Jeffrey Sullivan, sitting on the lookout wall at nearby Mackenzie’s Point.
The youths threatened the two men, then set upon them, hitting them, kicking them and beating them with a claw hammer and a baton, leaving Sullivan semiconscious.
The youths chased Rattanajurathaporn along the clifftop walkway, where he either fell to his death or was pushed over.
His cause of death was either from drowning or from his injuries, which included extensive lacerations, bruising, skull and spinal fractures and brain damage.
The three youths were eventually convicted of murder and each sentenced to 14
years in prison.
But the hate crimes did not magically end with a new decade, nor were they confined to beachside locations.
In January 1987, Raymond Keam had been bashed to death at Alison Park, Randwick, and in December 1988, William Allen was bashed to death at Alexandria Park, Alexandria.
In the inner-western suburb of Alexandria a gang of up to 15 members aged between 15 and 18 years old was operating.
Known as the Alexandria Gang or Alexandria Eight, they met at their local park at night, as was the case in 1990 when a man called Richard Johnson was lured there to the toilet block by a man posing via a telephone call as person wanting to meet up for a tryst.
Johnson parked his car and walked over to the toilet block in search of his mystery hook-up, The group of teenage boys ran towards him and knocked him to the ground with one blow.
The boys took turns punching and kicking his head and body, until he died where he lay.
Between 1989 and 1999 around 46 known gay hate murders took place in New South Wales, many of them still unsolved.
In one month alone in 1990, 38 gay-related beatings were reported to Surry Hills or Kings Cross police.
In 2000, responding to pleas from families of the murdered or missing, NSW Police reopened thousands of cases and took more than 400 statements.
In 2002, they presented a brief to then-Deputy State Coroner Jacqueline Milledge.
Detective Sergeant Stephen Page said at the time similarities had been found in a “spree of murders” which had originally been dismissed as suicides and one-off attacks.
“We’ve found that there were gangs involved in gay bashings,” Sergeant Page said.
“There may be a possible link between the gangs and the deaths we are investigating. We believe that these gangs knew each other.’
“In that era there was a culture of hatred by some youths who would form gangs and target the gay community.
“Using a pack mentality they [gay-hate gangs] would target people that were unable to defend themselves against the numbers of offenders and there was a lot of violence inflicted against the victims.
“People who were victims of bashings robberies and rapes in the area [South Bondi] have come forward.’’
As for the death of American student Scott Johnson at Manly’s Blue Fish Point, his brother Steve endured three inquests, the first two concluding death by suicide, and an open finding.
At the third in 2017, the coroner found he fell from the cliff “as a result of actual or threatened violence” by an unidentified attacker who perceived him to be gay.
On May 12, 2020, Scott Phillip White, 49, was arrested at his home in Lane Cove, on Sydney’s lower north shore, and charged with Scott Johnson’s murder.
Steve Johnson told Australian Story that it was “an emotional day” when NSW Police informed him that someone had been charged with his brother’s alleged murder.
“It’s emotional for me, it’s emotional for my family, my two sisters and my brother who love Scott dearly, my wife and my three kids who never got to know their uncle but admire him,” he said.
“Emotional for the gay community.
“For whom, Scott had come to symbolise the many dozens of other gay men who lost their lives in the 1980s and 90s in a world full of anti-gay prejudice and hatred.
“I hope the friends and families of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what’s happened today.”