A new documentary film chronicling the deeply troubling circumstances surrounding death of a young gay American student is raising questions about whether or not his supposed suicide was actually one of a spate of murders committed by "roving gangs of poofter-bashing youths" in the Sydney area the 1980s.
Steve Johnson lost his brother Scott, who was gay, in 1988 to what police in the Australian state of New South Wales quickly termed a suicide. In an instant, not only did Johnson lose his beloved brother, his newborn daughter lost an uncle whom she would never meet, while the world lost one of the most promising young mathematicians academia had seen in a generation.
Having aired recently on public television in the U.S. and available streaming online indefinitely, On the Precipice documents Steve Johnson's trek back to what many now believe is a murder scene half a world away, a murder that happened at a time that was vastly different from what gay men in Australia see today.
"Scott and I were very close," says Johnson, who in the 1990s built and sold a tech company called Johnson Grace, which developed some of the foundational algorithms that still underpin video compression today.
Johnson's brother Scott was also on a trajectory for great success. Though only 27 at the time of his death in 1988, Scott Johnson had already worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab on projects that resulted in the first images of the surface of Venus — and he had already collaborated with several Harvard professors on the publication of landmark economics papers.
"We'll never know what we lost," laments Johnson. "Scott was brilliant and he was the sweetest man I've ever known."
In fact, the Tuesday following his supposed suicide, Scott was to have had a much-anticipated meeting with his professor. The day before his death, Scott's professor notified him that he had earned his doctorate. The facts around Scott's life at the time of his death made it all the harder for his family to accept the police's version of events.
"For a long time it was a complete mystery," Steve Johnson tells The Advocate. "Everyone had doubts."
Johnson has spent years reliving his thoughts and emotions from around the time of his brother's passing. He and others who knew and loved Scott felt nearly as much confusion as they did sadness during those early days following the tragedy.
Johnson recently wrote an op-ed for The Advocate about the fumbled investigations into his brother's death and other investigations of possibly misclassified suicides of gay men near Sydney.
"We were astonished," says Johnson, recalling the moment he received news of his brother's death. "His professor was completely destroyed. His boyfriend and his friends were completely at a loss."
Confusion and sadness notwithstanding, the months following the untimely death of Scott Johnson became years. Eventually, the years stacked up until it was nearly two decades since the New South Wales police had ruled Scott's death "just another suicide by a gay jumper." Then something unexpected happened.