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Man Admits to Cold Case Murder of Gay Student After Over 30 Years

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An Australian man was convicted of the 1988 murder of U.S. national Scott Johnson after he declared in court that he was guilty.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Scott Phillip White, 50, stunned his lawyers when he took responsibility for killing the brilliant math postgraduate student whose naked body was found at the bottom of the cliffs near Manly in northern Sydney.

“Guilty, guilty, guilty,” White declared Monday at a pre-trial hearing before the New South Wales Supreme Court.

“Suddenly it was over,” Scott’s brother Steve Johnson said following the conviction. “This man finally found the soul to confess and put an end to this. My family are all in tears.”

Investigators believe White and Johnson had gone to the cliffs for sex after meeting up earlier at a nearby hotel. They claimed that at some point in the encounter, White panicked and punched Johnson, causing him to fall to his death below. Police arrested White in May 2020 after receiving a tip about his involvement in the case.

Lawyers for White said that while he was mentally fit to stand trial, he often made impulsive decisions when under extreme stress and anxiety. Justice Helen Wilson, however, noted White was “very emphatic” and made the declaration “in a manner which was very determined and very firm, and using a loud and clear voice.”

White had raised a possible guilty plea on several prior occasions, but lawyers were able to dissuade him until Monday. White both thanked and apologized to his lawyers, “but I can’t handle it,” he explained. The court also heard White had contemplated the guilty plea for some time. Justice Wilson accepted White’s plea and he was convicted of the murder.

Earlier today, White attempted to withdraw his plea, but the court refused to vacate the decision.

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Photo: Getty Images

The cliffs surrounding the greater Sydney area were popular with members of the gay community looking to hook up during the 1970s and ‘80s, but also homophobic groups of men and youth who would assault and often murder gay men, throwing them or forcing them to leap from the cliffs onto the rocks below. While impossible to calculate, police and others estimate perhaps as many as 80 men or more were killed here during the period. Police often refused to investigate, instead, ruling the murders as death by suicide.

Johnson, 27, was a brilliant math student who had moved to Australia from the U.S. to be with his partner, Australian national Michael Noone, and to study for his Ph.D. when his naked body was discovered by a fisherman at the base of cliffs near Manly in December 1988. His clothes were found neatly folded at the top of the cliff.

There had been three inquests into the Johnson murder. The first declared the case a death by suicide. A second inquest 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. At this point, new police commissioner Mick Fuller replaced the old detectives assigned to the case. Johnson credited Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans with cracking the case.

“He brilliantly persevered and found the truth at last,” Steve Johnson said.

The case had been under a media gag order until White’s conviction today. He will next appear in court for sentencing on May 2.

Update: the story has been updated to reflect Scott Phillip White's age, 50. 

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