Man Jailed After Confessing to Pushing Gay American Off a Cliff in ’88

The Australian, who was apparently raised in a homophobic family and later came out as gay himself, was given a maximum jail term of 12 years and seven months.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
scott johnson murder
LA-born Scott Johnson was 27 years old when he was pushed off a cliff to his death in Sydney. Photo: NSW Police

The naked body of 27-year-old Scott Johnson was discovered by a teenage spearfisher at the bottom of a Sydney Harbour cliff on December 10, 1988. For decades it was considered a suicide. But now, more than 33 years later, the man responsible for his murder has been jailed.

Scott Phillip White confessed to police that he killed Los Angeles-born Johnson by pushing him off the cliff at North Head—an area well-known for gay meetups—in what prosecutors described as a homophobic hate crime, a court heard on Monday.


A coroner had previously ruled in 1989 that Johnson, an openly gay American mathematician studying in Canberra, had taken his own life. But a separate coronial inquest in 2017 found that he “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.”

Having previously denied the murder, White, 51, repeatedly confessed his guilt at a pre-trial hearing in January this year. In a recorded police interview from 2020 that was played in court this week, he could be heard saying: “I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge.” White further revealed in the interview that his previous claims to police, about trying to grab Johnson and prevent his fall, were lies.

scott johnson clothes

The victim met his killer in a nearby bar in Manly, and stripped naked at the clifftop before his death, the court heard. Photo: NSW Police

On Tuesday, he was sentenced to a maximum of 12 years and seven months, with a non-parole period of eight years and three months. The judge said there was not enough evidence to deem the murder a gay hate crime “beyond reasonable doubt.” He also noted that White, who came out as gay years later and was raised in a homophobic family, could have been driven by “self-loathing.”

White received a reduced sentence on several grounds including his admission of guilt, cognitive impairment, and a dysfunctional upbringing. As the court must abide by sentencing patterns at the time of the murder, his sentence is also shorter than what he would’ve received had the crime been committed today.


“Sentences for murder in the late 80s and early 90s were on average lower than at present,” the judge said. “The court is not sentencing a violent and aggressive young man for an attack on a gay man,” she added. “It is sentencing a seriously impaired man in his 50s who has been law abiding for 15 years.”

Despite his guilty plea, White has already lodged an appeal against his conviction.

Many have viewed Johnson’s murder within the broader context of Sydney’s violent homophobic history, which saw gangs of men roaming the city in search of gay men to assault for “sport” in the 1980s and 1990s, in some cases forcing them to jump off cliffs to their deaths. Police have claimed that about a dozen such victims were found dead at the bottom of cliffs or in the sea—but former officials and officers claim that detectives often carried out inattentive investigations that overlooked the possibility of homicide.

Since 2013, New South Wales police have been reviewing the deaths of 88 men between 1976 and 2000 to determine whether they should be classified as anti-gay hate crimes.

Over the years, Johnson’s brother, Steve, maintained pressure for further investigation into his death following a series of inconclusive coronial inquiries. In March 2020, he matched NSW Police’s promised reward of 1 million Australian dollars ($704,000) for information relating to his brother’s death—the first time a victim's family had ever done so in Australia. The case received a breakthrough just months later, when police arrested White in May following a tip-off from his ex-wife, Helen.


Helen White told the court that her then-husband previously “bragged” to their children about beating gay men at the North Head clifftop, and said she asked him whether he was responsible for Johnson’s death in 2008 after reading about it in a newspaper report. 

“It’s not my fault,” he allegedly replied. “The dumb (expletive) ran off the cliff.”

Helen denied knowing about NSW Police’s promised reward for information on Johnson’s death when she reported White to them in 2019, saying she only became aware of it when Steve Johnson doubled the sum.

While noting that the precise details of Johnson’s death are not known, Prosecutor Brett Hatfield told the court that White had met the victim in a nearby bar in Manly and that Johnson had stripped naked at the clifftop before his death. In sentencing him, the court concluded that White had a “reckless indifference” to Johnson’s life.

“With a vicious push, Mr. White took Scott and he vanished,” Steve Johnson told the court in an emotional victim impact statement. “This man [Scott Johnson] who once told me he could never hurt someone even in self-defense died in terror.”

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