When Steve Johnson told Australian Story in 2013 his brother had been pushed off a cliff in a gay hate murder, he was rocked by the revelations that followed.
At least 10 other families contacted him to say they thought the same thing had happened to their gay son or brother — part of an epidemic of “poofter bashing” in Sydney in the late 80s and 90s.
As with Steve’s brother Scott, who died at Manly in 1988, they had been told by police their family member had committed suicide.
“They didn’t realise there was a strong possibility of violence until they started hearing the publicity about Scott’s case,” he says.
“So many families must have gone home like I did, with their hands in their pockets and nothing to do with their grief, no answers and no justice.”
For the first time, a former NSW coroner has revealed that the Scott Johnson case could have been resolved much sooner if not for police treating the death as a suicide and closing the case.
Former NSW Deputy Coroner Jacqueline Milledge is part of “Team Scott” — a band of strangers, all experts in their field, who came together to fight for justice for the young American PhD student.
“If Scott Johnson’s death had been regarded as it should have been, police may have made some connection, they may have seen a pattern,” Ms Milledge says.
“It may have led to a very earlier resolve of the Scott Johnson matter than now, some 30 years later.”
For 17 years, Scott’s death was just another sad statistic. Forgotten except by his family and his Australian boyfriend, who he had met at Cambridge University and had been the reason he had come to Australia from Los Angeles.
Ms Milledge, who held an inquest in 2005 into the deaths of three gay men near Bondi, was never told about the Scott Johnson case and its striking similarities.
“And when I was looking at the Scott Johnson matter, I couldn’t help but feel he had met his fate the same way,” she says.
‘Gay man don’t care’
Steve Johnson never accepted the finding by police and a 1989 coroner’s report that his brother had committed suicide.
Scott Johnson had just finished a PhD in applied mathematics, a considerable achievement that had taken five years. By all accounts, he was happy and a glittering future lay ahead.
“Scott was capable of really changing the world,” Mr Johnson says.
Sixteen years passed before he heard about Jacqueline Milledge’s inquest into the Bondi deaths, and decided to fund his own investigation into his brother’s death.
The multi-millionaire American eventually set up a network of 12 people in the United States and Australia, including lawyers, investigative journalists, former detectives — and a former Massachusetts attorney-general, Martha Coakley, whose firm took the case pro bono.
“We called ourselves Team Scott, and there was a hellacious amount of work to do,” he tells Australian Story.
“Fortunately, the case attracted a lot of people who just wanted to help because they thought this was important.”
Sue Thompson joined Team Scott in 2007 after reading an article about the case.
Ms Thompson was the NSW Police gay and lesbian consultant for 12 years from 1990 and says she developed a sense for cases that looked to her like gay hate crimes.
One of the giveaways was gay men dying in parks or at cliffs because at the time these were gay beats, where men met for sex.
Ms Thompson says victims of violence often didn’t report crimes because they believed police weren’t interested.
“When Scott Johnson died in 1988, homosexuality had only been decriminalised in 1984, so it’s a very short time in terms of police attitudes,” she says.
“There would have been a lot of prejudice, so it could have been, ‘gay man, don’t care’, or ‘gay man at a beat — care even less’.
“The Johnson family made many approaches to the police to try and have them reconsider the position. Every time the Johnson family asked the police to help, they were dismissed,” Ms Milledge says.
Another person stepping up to help was former NSW detective Steve Page.
“There were late-night phone calls, a lot of emails. We would hungrily go through every document that was put forward by the police, looking for areas that may have been overlooked,” Mr Page says.
After pressure from Team Scott, a second inquest into the case in 2012 overturned the suicide verdict and replaced it with an open finding.
Five years later, an unprecedented third inquest into the case found that Scott had been chased, frightened or pushed off the cliff because he was homosexual.
Steve Johnson was at the inquest every day, hearing evidence that there were attacks on gay men at the place Scott had died.
“I probably have 50,000 documents that had been prepared by one of the teams or another during the course of just this third inquest. We really knew that this was our last shot,” he says.
The inquest, he says, was “quite a window to this ugly period that was essentially open season on gay men”.
A murder charge after 31 years
When Mick Fuller became the Commissioner of NSW Police in 2017, Steve Johnson says “it was a complete turnaround”.
The Commissioner ordered a new homicide investigation and in 2018 announced a $1 million reward for information.
Steve Johnson doubled that reward earlier this year.
In May of this year, a man, now 50, was charged with Scott’s murder.
He has not entered a plea and will appear in court on September 8.
“There’s no way to describe what that felt like, after 31-and-a-half years, they’ve apprehended the person they believe killed my brother,” Steve Johnson said.
“Finally, I’m going to have some answers.”
For Steve Johnson, it also gives hope that justice may be found for the families of other gay men who died in mysterious circumstances.
“I can’t imagine that all or most of them will be solved, but the police should pay attention to all of them,” he says.