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HomeNewsScott Johnson’s killer sentenced, but will likely be released in mid 2026

Scott Johnson’s killer sentenced, but will likely be released in mid 2026

The man responsible for the death of Scott Johnson at Blue Fish Point, Manly, in December 1988, who confessed to murder at his January 2022 trial, has been sentenced to nine years jail for manslaughter.

The judgement was delivered last month, 8 June.

52-year-old Scott White, who was 18 at the time the 27-year-old American mathematician plummeted 50 metres off the cliff’s edge to his death, will now be eligible for release in mid 2026. This takes into account time White has served in prison since his arrest in May 2020.

As Manly Observer previously reported, on 8 January 2022, during a pre-trial hearing in the NSW Supreme Court, White surprised his legal team by sensationally confessing to the 33-year-old unsolved murder.

Whilst the court officer was in the midst of reading the charges against him, White reportedly loudly proclaimed, “Guilty! I’m guilty! Guilty!”

White’s legal defence team then tried to reverse their client’s admission, claiming it was caused by stress and would amount to a “miscarriage of justice” if the Supreme Court convicted him on the basis of his confession.

However, Justice Helen Wilson, after assessing the evidence, refused White and his legal team leave to withdraw his guilty plea, and he was convicted of murder at a trial on 13 January 2022.

The Judge learned that White had also previously admitted his involvement in Johnson’s murder to NSW Police, but then withdrew that confession prior to his Supreme Court appearance.

“I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge,” White confessed in a recorded police interview after his arrest in 2020, which the Prosecution played in court.

On 2 May 2022, White was sentenced to 12 years and seven months jail.

Blue Fish Point, North Head. Photo: Alec Smart

From murder to manslaughter

In a reversal of fortune for White, in November 2022, his lawyers successfully appealed his murder conviction. Then, in a retrial on 23 February 2023, he pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of manslaughter, for which, on Thursday 8 June, he was sentenced to nine years imprisonment with a non-parole period of six years, backdated to his arrest in May 2020.

What is known is that the two Scotts, Johnson and White, met at Brighton Hotel on Manly Corso on 10 December 1988, then decided to undertake a bushwalk on North Head to Blue Fish Point, six kilometres south of Manly Beach. White was apparently homeless at the time.

The historic stone wall separating Blue Fish Point peninsula. Photo: Alec Smart

Blue Fish Point, a precipice on a forested peninsula, was shielded from the surrounding bush trails by a three-metre-high wall made of sandstone blocks – part of seven kilometres of stone walls built between 1901 and the mid 1930s.

The peninsula is accessible via a steep descending dirt track through the bush behind North Head Wastewater Treatment Plant, 800 metres from the nearest road. Blue Fish Point is accessed through a narrow gap in the wall where a number of stone blocks have been removed.

Dangerous times

Although homosexuality was decriminalised in NSW on 22 May 1984, the Blue Fish Point area was a known gay ‘beat’, because it had long afforded privacy at a time when gay men were being systematically targeted – and often murdered – across the Sydney metropolitan area.

According to the report Inquiry into Gay and Transgender hate crimes between 1970 and 2010, which detailed combined research by Professor of Criminology Stephen Tomsen and former NSW Police gay liaison officer Sue Thompson, as many as 88 Sydney deaths, 30 of which still remain unsolved, were gay hate murders.

For example, on 15 December 1988, a week after Scott’s death, 29-year-old Ronald Currie was found beaten to death in a toilet block in North Manly.

In many cases, victims were ambushed and thrown or pushed off seafront cliffs; such as 27-year-old French national Giles Mattaini (15 September 1985), 25-year-old TV newsreader Ross Warren (22 July 1989), 31-year-old barman, John Russell (23 November 1989) and 31-year-old Thai national Kritchikorn Rattanajurathaporn (20 July 1990).

All four of them met their deaths at Mackenzie’s Point, the rocky headland by Marks Park, on the seafront path mid-way between Bondi and Tamarama beaches. Ross Warren’s body was never found. Coincidentally, this is where, in 1982, gay superstar Elton John filmed a music video for his Grammy-nominated song Blue Eyes, playing a white grand piano near the cliff edge.

Blue Fish Point, where Scott Johnson fell to his death after being attacked on 10 December 1988. Photo: Alec Smart

Mathematical genius – “suicide” claim

In December 1988, Scott Johnson, a maths prodigy, who, with his older brother Steve, developed the world’s first algorithm that enabled the transfer of digital photos online, was about to receive his Doctorate of Philosophy in Mathematics. He majored in Category Theory, which he was studying between three universities (Sydney, Macquarie and ANU in Canberra).

Johnson’s naked body was found two days after his disappearance on the rock ledge below Blue Fish Point by a 13-year-old boy and two spear fishermen. His clothes were neatly folded on the precipice above.

An initial NSW Police inquiry ruled Johnson’s death was suicide. Within 24 hours of the discovery of Johnson’s body, investigating officers wrote ‘NFA’ – No Further Action – on the police occurrence pad.

During the March 1989 inquest held at Glebe Coroners’ Court, three months after Johnson’s death, Constable Troy Hardie, the Manly police officer who partially oversaw the original investigation, told NSW State Coroner Derrick Hand, “There was no evidence of any foul play, so I believed it was suicide.”

The inquiry concluded there were “no suspicious circumstances”.

This was undoubtedly influenced by Johnson’s boyfriend, Michael Noone, who claimed his partner was ‘suicidal’ after an ‘act of infidelity’ in San Francisco in 1985, three years earlier.

Mr Noone reiterated his assertion at the third inquiry into Johnson’s death on 14 June 2017.

“He was convinced that he had either contracted AIDS or exposed himself to a virus and he was deeply remorseful and decided to do away with himself by jumping off Golden Gate Bridge,” Noone insisted.

“Scott was a person who set himself an extremely high standard. And when he himself fell short of those very high standards he went into a downward spiral of self-blame. Depression is the only way I can think of describing it. He turned in on himself.”

Blue Fish Point, where Scott Johnson was killed by his assailant, Scott White, in Dec 1988. Photo: Alec Smart

However, in November 2017, the NSW State Coroner, Michael Barnes, dismissed the suicide theory outright and overturned the two previous Inquiry verdicts of ‘suicide’ in March 1989 and ‘open’ in February 2013. Barnes recorded: “Mr Johnson fell from the cliff top as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.

“I am of the view it is very unlikely Scott took his own life. I am persuaded to the requisite standard that Scott died as a result of a gay hate attack.”

Reward and arrest

In March 2020, Scott Johnson’s brother matched a $1 million reward for information offered by the NSW Government in December 2018 (increased from $100,000), bringing the total to $2 million.

Shortly afterwards, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans, lead investigator of Strike Force Welsford overseeing the Scott Johnson case, confirmed the investigation had narrowed their suspects down to a “particular individual”.

Lane Cove resident Scott White was suddenly arrested within two months of the announcement of the increased reward, on Tuesday 12 May 2020.

It is not known whether anyone claimed the reward,  but White’s estranged wife, Helen, did testify against him in Court.

In Australian criminal history, only two legal cases have convened three separate coronial inquests to examine new facts and forensic revelations: Azaria Chamberlain (the baby taken by a dingo at Uluru) and Scott Johnson’s murder at Blue Fish Point.

A NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into LGBTIQ hate crimes committed in NSW between 1970 and 2010 was established on 15 October 2019, and is due to report its findings by 30 August 2023.

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Manly Observer is an experiment in providing non-sensationalist hyperlocal news on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We cover the big news across the LGA, but with a hyper focus on the Manly electorate encompassing Balgowlah, Seaforth, Freshwater, Brookvale and Curl Curl up to Dee Why. It is run by those living in the community for the benefit of an informed community. We care about an informed and connected community. That’s it. Simple. Thank you for your support in keeping quality local news alive!

Kim Smee, Editor

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