‘Gay hate’ killer who murdered US mathematician Scott Johnson admits he’s gay – while jailed

A man who recently admitted to murdering an American mathematician found at the base of a Sydney cliff 34 years ago in a gay hate crime has himself come out as gay, a court has heard.

Scott Phillip White, 51, was jailed for a maximum of 12 years and seven months on Tuesday on the murder of 27-year-old Scott Johnson, whose naked body was found at the base of a cliff on Sydney’s northern beaches in December 1988.

White will be eligible for parole in eight years in August 2030.

For more than three decades, Mr Johnson’s death has been ruled a suicide by police before White was charged with murder in 2020 after a long campaign by his relatives and the media.

White had previously indicated he would plead not guilty before changing his plea at a preliminary hearing in January. He showed no emotion in the dock when Judge Helen Wilson handed down his sentence on Tuesday.

Judge Wilson found he punched Mr Johnson at North Head in a hostile act, resulting in the doctor’s death.

Scott Johnson’s body was found at the base of a cliff on Sydney’s northern beaches in 1988

Scott Phillip White (pictured) will spend at least eight years behind bars for the murder of Scott Johnson 34 years ago

Scott Phillip White (pictured) will spend at least eight years behind bars for the murder of Scott Johnson 34 years ago

Scott Johnson's family on a united front as they leave the NSW Supreme Court after Scott Phillip White was convicted of the mathematician's murder on Tuesday

Scott Johnson’s family on a united front as they leave the NSW Supreme Court after Scott Phillip White was convicted of the mathematician’s murder on Tuesday

‘[White] committed a violent act and that act is the direct cause of Dr Johnson leaving the cliff in terror,’ the judge said.

The fatal assault was carried out with a reckless disregard for human life, with White throwing the punch near the unguarded edge of a high coastal cliff and then fleeing without notifying police after Dr Johnson disappeared by- over the edge.

Judge Wilson found there was not enough evidence ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ to show the murder was a gay hate crime, however, because White had met Dr Johnson at the Brighton Hotel and that the couple had purposely gone gay beat together.

Judge Wilson acknowledged the result ‘is unlikely to end the heartbreak…it might bring some peace’ to the grieving family of Dr Johnson, who have spent the past 34 years fighting for justice.

‘It was a terrible death… Mr Johnson must have been terrified, aware that he would strike the rocks below and aware of his fate,’ she said.

Judge Wilson concluded that the attack was unplanned and could have been motivated by “self-loathing”.

White was raised in a homophobic household before coming out as gay years later, the sentencing process revealed this week.

White, was facing life behind bars, but received a reduced sentence due to his recent guilty plea, cognitive impairment and a dysfunctional upbringing.

Originally from Los Angeles, Dr Johnson was a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra when he met White during a Manly hotel before the couple traveled to North Head.

Johnson's body was found at the bottom of Sydney's North Head Manly Walk in 1988 and for nearly three decades his death was dismissed by police as a suicide.

Johnson’s body was found at the bottom of Sydney’s North Head Manly Walk in 1988 and for nearly three decades his death was dismissed by police as a suicide.

Scott Johnson's brother, Steve, (right) arrived at the NSW Supreme Court on Monday with his sisters, Terry, left, and Rebecca and his wife Rosemarie (second right), where the family made heartbreaking statements .

Scott Johnson’s brother, Steve, (right) arrived at the NSW Supreme Court on Monday with his sisters, Terry, left, and Rebecca and his wife Rosemarie (second right), where the family made heartbreaking statements .

During a hearing on Monday, white attorney Belinda Rigg SC argued that his client should receive a lesser sentence because he was only 18 at the time, saying sentences for murder were significantly lower in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

White’s intellectual disabilities meant he suffered from stress, anxiety and panic attacks while in custody.

During the 1980s, White was a gay man who had lived with his homophobic brother and alcoholic parents, Ms Rigg said.

She also told the court that White had now identified as gay and told police he had traveled, at Mr Johnson’s suggestion, to North Head on the night of his death.

It comes as Mr Johnson’s broken family have spoken of the horror, terror, tragedy and heartache the past 34 years have brought.

Sister Terry Johnson said Scott White took decades from her brother’s life.

“The hateful person who killed Scott has been walking this earth free for 33 years. Thirty-three years he took away from my little brother. I believe [White] deserves life in prison.

Another sister, Rebecca Johnson, explained how 1980s society also let down teenagers who thought violence against gay people was okay as White watched from the dock,

“Parents, siblings, teachers and classmates, authority, culture, Mr. White’s world somehow reinforced that violence and even murder were okay and maybe gay men weren’t not human. It is a deep tragedy,” she said on Monday.

‘Wailing is reliving, it’s a howl of death, despair, loss and grief that means a part of us is gone. It never goes away,’ Steve Johnson (pictured right with Scott) in court about his brother’s death.

Scott Johnson's family has spent the past 34 years fighting for justice.  Pictured, his brother Steve hugs his wife outside the NSW Supreme Court on Monday

Scott Johnson’s family has spent the past 34 years fighting for justice. Pictured, his brother Steve hugs his wife outside the NSW Supreme Court on Monday

Ms Johnson questioned why her brother had been placed in the crosshairs of deadly violence and murder simply for whom he had chosen to love.

Brother Steve Johnson described the death as too horrific to be true, saying his mother reacted with a moaning cry at the news.

“Wailing is a reliving, it’s a howl of death, despair, loss and grief that means a part of us is gone. It never goes away.

Dr Johnson’s partner Michael Noone also issued a statement describing the horror of receiving a call from the police about the death of a loved one.

Victim impact statements were heard after White’s former partner, Helen White, spoke out and described a conversation with him in December 1998 about his 1980s “poofter stunt”.

“He said the only good poofter is a dead poofter, to whom I said, ‘So you threw him off the cliff’. And he said, ‘It’s not my fault that the idiot ran off the cliff,” she said.

Ms White has denied suggestions by White’s lawyer that she only went to the police because of a $1 million reward offered in 2018 for information about Mr Johnson’s death, and dismissed claims that she made up the conversations with her then-husband.

The prosecution underscored the seriousness of the offence, saying it targeted the victim’s sexuality.

“This was a serious, serious murder that involved a high degree of criminality,” Crown Attorney Brett Hatfield said.

Los Angeles native Scott Johnson was a PhD student at the Australian National University in Canberra before he was killed

Los Angeles native Scott Johnson was a PhD student at the Australian National University in Canberra before he was killed

Speaking after Monday’s hearing, Steve Johnson said while giving their statements in court was emotional for the family, it was a chance to look White straight in the eye.

‘I must say [White] how was my brother. I have to tell him what it’s like to hear he’s dead… I have to think he gets it. He watched and listened.

White’s defense team unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the guilty plea on the day it was entered.

An appeal against White’s conviction was filed last month and could be heard by the Court of Criminal Appeals “late this year”, Judge Wilson said.

While the initial police investigation in 1989 found Mr Johnson’s death to be a suicide, the case was reopened in 2012.

Another inquest made an open finding in June 2012, but a third in 2017 found that Mr Johnson had fallen from a cliff top following violence from an unidentified assailant who perceived him to be gay.

White had met Johnson at a nearby bar in a Sydney suburb and Johnson stripped naked on top of a cliff before dying, prosecutors say.

White had met Johnson at a nearby bar in a Sydney suburb and Johnson stripped naked on top of a cliff before dying, prosecutors say.

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