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Australian Man Accused In 1988 Murder Of Gay American Mathematician Pleads Guilty
“Guilty, I’m guilty, guilty,” Scott White said in court this week of the murder of Scott Johnson in the Sydney area more than three decades ago.
The murder of an American mathematician who died after plunging off a Sydney-area cliff more than three decades ago was solved in 2022, bringing a decades-long mystery to an end.
Scott White is currently serving an eight year prison sentence for the murder of Scott Johnson, who was found dead at the bottom of a Sydney cliff in 1988. He is expected to be released from custody in 2026, having already served a portion of his sentence.
White initially confessed to the murder during a pre-trial hearing in January 2022, and later sentenced to 12 years in prison, according to The Guardian. However, White's attorneys appealed the decision, stating that White was confused when he was asked to enter a plea. The Australian appeals court ruled in November 2022 that White should've been granted a trial, despite his surprise admission, the Australian Associated Press reported.
White later entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge of manslaughter and his sentence was reduced to eight years and three months.
Who was Scott Johnson?
Scott Johnson was a mathematician and PhD student from California, who was later found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Sydney, Australia in 1988.
At the time of the murder, Johnson was studying at the Australian National University in Canberra, where he was seeking a PhD in mathematics. He previously studied at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as University of Cambridge in England, where he met partner Michael Noone, a musicologist from Sydney.
Johnson's brother, Steve, told the Boston Globe that Johnson fell in love with Noone and decided to move to Australia in 1986, just two years after homosexuality was decriminalized, so they could be together. Johnson was living with Noone's parents at the time of his death.
Described to the Globe as "a brilliant mathematician" by Richard Zeckhauser, an economics professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Johnson was nearly done with his PhD. He has since been awarded a posthumous degree by the Australian National University.
What happened to Scott Johnson?
On Dec. 8, 1988, Scott Johnson’s body was found by beachgoers beneath a North Head cliff in the Sydney suburb of Manly. His clothes, shoes, and wallet were found at the top of the cliff.
The 27-year-old’s death was initially ruled a suicide by authorities.
However, his family almost immediately cast doubt on the police narrative — and for years pushed Australian investigators to open a renewed probe into the gay man’s death.
In 2017, the cause of death was changed to murder after Australian authorities acknowledged that Johnson may have been targeted by homophobic gangs in the area. According to the BBC, the police have since estimated that nearly 80 gay men were likely killed by these gangs, but hate crimes were not actively pursued.
"The gay community were second class citizens. They weren't well protected," Steve told the BBC. "The gangs would attack these cruising areas because they knew the police wouldn't come after them."
Johnson’s family offered up approximately $647,000 in Australian currency for information leading to the arrest of the killer.
Scott White's Arrest
White was charged in Johnson’s murder in 2020 after an informant named him in the case, according to Australia's ABC News.
“The police were sure they had the right person but you’re never sure until you hear those words from the person themselves, and then suddenly I know who killed my brother,” Scott Johnson also told Australia’s ABC radio.
It was later revealed that, in 2019, White's ex-wife, Helen White, wrote an anonymous letter to police in which she said that her former husband had bragged about killing gay men, according to the Associated Press. She said that White told her he had run Johnson off the cliff after meeting him at a bar.
Scott White's Court Admission
White was found guilty in Scott Johnson’s 1988 killing in January 2022, after making a surprise admission in court, according to reports. White had previously pleaded not guilty in the suspected hate crime killing.
In court, White repeated multiple times that he was guilty in front of Supreme Court Justice Helen Wilson. He reportedly stood and stated, “Guilty, I’m guilty, guilty,’” according to Johnson’s family in attendance at the hearing, the New York Times reported.
The stunning confession shocked courtroom onlookers, Johnson’s family and White’s own defense counsel, who attempted to strike from his comments from the record.
“No one was prepared for that, including me,” Scott Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson, told the newspaper by telephone following the startling admission.
White’s confession was accepted by the presiding Supreme Court judge, though his conviction was later overturned. He's since entered a guilty plea to manslaughter.
The sudden development was welcomed by Johnson’s family, who said they were relieved they don’t have to relive the anguish of his death through a lengthy trial.
“It’s over, finally,” Steve Johnson, his brother, told the New York Times in a telephone interview. “This 33-year odyssey has come to a conclusion.”
Johnson’s family is now hoping White’s conviction could help the families of other gay men whose murders have gone unsolved over the years in Australia
“They now have a model to follow,” Steve Johnson added. “They now have some hope that you can solve a 30-year-old case,” he said. “I feel like my brother would be really proud.”