An Australian man has confessed to police that he killed a gay American mathematician in 1988 by pushing him off a cliff in what prosecutors described as a hate crime, a court heard on Monday.
Scott White, 51, appeared at the New South Wales State Supreme Court for a sentencing hearing after he pleaded guilty in January to the murder of 27-year-old Scott Johnson in Sydney.
The victim was a Los Angeles native who was working on a Ph.D. in mathematics at the Australian National University and was living in Canberra at the time.
Prosecutor Brett Hatfield said the precise details of the murder were not known and that White’s accounts had varied.
White had met Johnson at a bar in suburban Manly and Johnson had stripped naked on top of the cliff before he died, Hatfield said. He said the severity of the murder was significantly elevated because it was motivated by the victim’s sexuality.
Sydney police initially ruled Johnson’s death from a fall as suicide.
White faces life in prison when he is sentenced by Judge Helen Wilson on Tuesday.
“I pushed a guy. He went over the line,” White said in a 2020 taped police interview that was played in court Monday.
White said in the interview that he lied when he told police that he had tried to grab Johnson and prevent his fatal fall.
A coroner ruled in 2017 that Johnson “fell from the top of the cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified individuals who targeted him because they perceived him to be homosexual.”
The coroner also found that homophobic all-male gangs roamed Sydney looking for gay men to assault or rob, resulting in around 80 deaths.
A coroner ruled in 1989 that Johnson, who was openly gay, had taken his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 was unable to explain how he died.
His brother Steve Johnson, who lives in Boston, spent years seeking justice for Scott and offered his own reward of more than $700,000 for information leading to an arrest.
White was charged in May 2020 and police say the reward is likely to be collected.
White’s ex-wife, Helen White, told the court that her then-husband “bragged” to their children about beating up gay men on the cliffs at North Head, a popular gay hangout.
Helen White said she read a newspaper report in 2008 about Johnson’s death and asked her husband if he was responsible.
“It’s not my fault,” Scott White reportedly replied. “The fool [expletive] He ran off the cliff.”
“I said, ‘It is if you go after it,'” Helen White told the court. She said that her husband did not respond.
Under cross-examination, Helen White denied knowing about the reward for information on Johnson’s murder when she reported her ex-husband to police in 2019. She said she only found out about the money when the victim’s brother doubled the sum in 2020. .
Steve Johnson said in his victim impact statement: “With a strong shove, Mr. White took Scott away and disappeared.
“This man [Scott Johnson] who once told me that he could never hurt someone, even in self-defense, he died in terror,” the brother added.
Steve Johnson said he appreciated White’s guilty plea.
“If he had turned himself in after his violent action, he would have had a little more sympathy. If he had grabbed Scott’s hand and brought him to safety, I would owe him eternal gratitude,” the brother said as he held back tears.
White’s attorney, Belinda Rigg, said her client was gay and she was worried her homophobic brother would find out.
In January, White repeatedly shouted in court during a pre-trial hearing that he was guilty, having previously denied the crime.
His lawyers will appeal that allegation in the Court of Criminal Appeals and expect him to be acquitted at trial.
with post wires