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Man Who Murdered Gay American Scott Johnson in 1988 Is Sentenced Again

Man Who Murdered Gay American Scott Johnson in 1988 Is Sentenced Again

Scott Johnson’s Murderer Sentenced But Brother Accuses Australian Police of “Demonizing” His Family

Scott White had famously declared himself “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty” of the 1988 murder at a pretrial hearing last year.

An Australian man was sentenced to nine years in prison yesterday for the murder of American post-graduate student Scott Johnson in 1988, but the victim’s brother said police demonized the family with their hostile and adversarial attitude towards them during the multiple investigations.

Scott Philip White, now 52, agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter after negotiations between his legal team, prosecutors, and the Johnson family. His brother, Steven Johnson, was instrumental in bringing White to justice, but told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that an investigation into police practices confirmed his “worst fears that the police were really not only opposed to the investigation but demonizing our family.”

White, who reportedly has mental health issues and now suffers from dementia as a result of alcohol abuse, had declared himself “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” of the murder at a pretrial hearing last year. White was quickly convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison, but a New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal overturned the conviction on appeal last November and ordered a new trial. White now reportedly identifies as gay.

Johnson was a doctoral student at the Australian National University in Canberra before he was murdered on December 8, 1988. He had recently moved to the country to be with his partner and had applied for permanent residency shortly before he was killed by White. Johnson’s naked body was found at the bottom of the cliffs near Manley.

The case was the subject of three inquests. The initial investigation declared the case a death by suicide. A second was launched in 2012, which declared the case was still open. The third and final inquest found Johnson was the victim of murder and a hate crime. New detectives were assigned to the cold case, and White was soon identified as a suspect after a tip from his former wife who claimed White confessed to punching or pushing Johnson off the cliff.

Johnson was one of 88 gay men who died under suspicious circumstances in Sydney and NSW from 1976 to 2010. Many of the men were found at the base of cliffs overlooking the ocean around the greater Sydney area known to be popular with gay men looking for discreet public sex. Police routinely determined the men had died by suicide and then closed the cases.

Steve Johnson, the victim’s brother, refused to accept that finding, and doggedly pursued the case in the media and with police. His refusal to let his brother’s killer go free was not welcomed by investigators, however.

Johnson told ABC he was disturbed after text messages between past investigators on the second inquest revealed an apparently hostile and adversarial view of the victim’s family, specifically Steve.

An exchange between the homicide squad commander at the time, former deputy police commissioner Mick Willling, and former detective chief inspector Pamela Young, who was the lead investigator on the case, revealed the mood of police at the time.

“I want all the hard work you have done to come out in court for what it is and show the Johnsons for what they are,” Willing texted Young after she had appeared the day before on television saying there was still evidence to support claims Johnson had died by suicide and that the case should not be prioritized over others. “We need to let that happen and can’t jeopardise [sic] that now by letting them win.

“Mick, I will not let them win — that is not in my DNA,” Young responded.

Young told ABC today that her messages at the time were taken out of context.

“As a senior and experienced investigator, it is my duty to form opinions from the available evidence, I may get that opinion wrong sometimes... I am no magician,” she said. “I too hope that White's sentence for Scott’s manslaughter sticks, everyone deserves that.”

Johnson had a different opinion of the text messages between investigators and what they revealed yesterday.

“That someone who was one of the highest-ranking police officers in the NSW Police, Mick Willing, was essentially working with the investigating officer to make us lose... it’s outrageous,” Johnson said.

A government report on police handling of LGBTQ+ cases is expected to be released in August. White will be eligible for parole in May 2026.

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