An Australian man confessed to the police that he murdered a gay American mathematician in 1988 by pushing him off a cliff in what prosecutors described as a hate crime, a court heard Monday.
Scott White, 51, appeared in 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 doctorate in mathematics at Australian National University and 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 in a bar in suburban Manly and Johnson had stripped naked at the clifftop before he died, Hatfield said. He said the gravity of the murder was significantly elevated because it was motivated by the victim’s sexuality.
Johnson’s death by fall was initially dismissed by the Sydney police as suicide.
White faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced by Justice Helen Wilson on Tuesday.
“I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge,” White said in a recorded police interview in 2020 that was played in court Monday.
White said in the interview he lied when he had earlier told police that he had tried to grab Johnson and prevent his fatal fall.
A coroner ruled in 2017 that Johnson “fell from the clifftop as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.”
The coroner also found that homophobic gangs of men roamed Sydney in search of gay men to assault or rob, resulting in some 80 deaths.
A coroner had ruled in 1989 that Johnson, who was openly gay, had taken his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 could not 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 will likely be collected.
White’s ex-wife Helen White told the court that her then-husband “bragged” to their children of beating gay men at the North Head cliffs — a popular gay meeting spot.
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 allegedly replied. “The dumb [expletive] ran off the cliff.”
“I said, ‘It is if you chased him,’” Helen White told the court. She said her husband did not reply.
Under cross-examination, Helen White denied she had been aware of the reward for information on Johnson’s murder when she reported her former husband to police in 2019. She said she only learned of the money when the victim’s brother doubled the sum in 2020.
Steve Johnson said in his victim impact statement, “With a vicious push, Mr. White took Scott and he vanished.
“This man [Scott Johnson] who once told me he could never hurt someone even in self-defense died in terror,” the brother added.
Steve Johnson said he welcomed White’s guilty plea.
“If he had turned himself in after his violent action, I would have had a little more sympathy. If he had grasped Scott’s hand and pulled him to safety, I would owe him everlasting gratitude,” the brother said while choking back tears.
White’s lawyer Belinda Rigg said her client was gay and had been concerned that his homophobic brother would find out.
In January, White yelled repeatedly in court during a pre-trial hearing that he was guilty, having previously denied the crime.
His lawyers will appeal that plea in the Court of Criminal Appeals and hope he will be acquitted at trial.
With Post wires