It was November 1989 when the body of 31-year-old John Russell, who worked at a bar in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, was found at the bottom of a cliff in Tamarama.
The coroner would find his death was accidental; a result of drinking too much the night before.
Around the same time, two other men went missing in Bondi.
One was 25-year-old television presenter, Ross Warren, who was last seen driving along Oxford Street in July 1989 after a night out with friends.
Two days after his disappearance, the keys to his car were found beneath a cliff top at Marks Park – the same cliff where Russell’s body had been discovered.
Then there was Gilles Jacques Mattaini, a 27-year-old Frenchman, who had gone missing a few years earlier. He was last seen walking on the Tamarama coast track.
But, there’s more.
In 1988, 27-year-old Scott Johnson, an exceptional mathematician who was completing his doctorate, bought a ticket to Manly. Two days later, his naked body was found at the bottom of a cliff. It was deemed a suicide.
Then, in 1992, there was 64-year-old Cyril Olsen. His body was found in Rushcutters Bay, and even though an autopsy determined he had been horrifically beaten, Olsen’s death was officially recorded as a drowning.
So, what did these five men, who all died in suspiciously similar circumstances, within a close radius of each other, have in common?
They were gay.
On Tuesday, a landmark review of 88 deaths in Sydney between 1976 and 2000 found that one third were gay hate crimes. In light of the Strike Force Parabell findings, which took 10 criminal investigators and three years to collate, the NSW police have said they will consider issuing a formal apology.
In a press conference delivered on Tuesday, Nicholas Stewart, Partner at Dowson Turco Lawyers and LGBTI Co-Chair of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, said there were questions that desperately need answering: Why was evidence lost? Why were some witnesses not spoken to? And why weren’t leads followed?
Take Olsen for example.
His body was discovered in a renowned gay beat. He was beaten, and his head was gashed. The police had a tip off that a man with a lengthy history of violence said on the night he was murdered: “Let’s roll a poof tonight.” Another person came forward and identified that same man as being involved in the murder of the 64-year-old.
Marks Park, which sits atop the cliff where Russell allegedly ‘fell’, Warren’s keys mysteriously emerged, and extraordinarily close to where Mattaini was last seen, was a known gay pickup area.
Why weren’t these incidences more thoroughly investigated?
“It’s an ugly part of our history,” Assistant Commissioner Tony Crandell, police spokesman for sexuality, gender diversity and intersex said. “It needs to be acknowledged and we need to do everything we can to make sure no one is ever again fearful of their life because of who they are.”
There are now calls for a thorough investigation into cases of violence perpetrated upon members of the LGBTIQ community, and the way they have been historically handled by the NSW police.
Speaking to Mamamia, Nicholas Stewart, who worked on a simultaneous report prepared by LGBTI health organisation ACON pro bono for three years, said he believes they will get one.
“We really need an independent body to look at this period in our history and examine how police conducted themselves but also how the justice system intertwined,” he said.
The question Stewart said he keeps coming back to is: “Why wasn’t more done?” and ultimately, he thinks he can answer it.
“It was just gay men being murdered and no one cared. Murders were written off as suicides or unexplained.”
But Stewart also made the point that gay-hate crimes and gay-hate bias within the police force is also evident in cases of bashings.
He is currently working with a man named Alan Rosendale, who was walking near a popular gay beat one night when four men stopped their car and removed what he believes to be batons out of the boot, which they used to assault him.
“Alan fell over and they jumped on him and beat him unconscious leaving him in the gutter to die,” Stewart said.
But Alan regained consciousness, went to the hospital and then reported the crime to police. There was, however, confusion about the physical appearance of his attackers.
The police report states that Alan believed the men to be ‘skin heads’, which Alan maintains he never said.
Furthermore, a witness to the bashing made a call to triple zero where he stated the license plate of the vehicle.
That vehicle, Stewart said, belonged to a a registered NSW police force driver; an unmarked police car. To this day, 25 years on from the incident, Alan Rosendale is yet to have answers.
With the extent of the violence perpetrated on members of the LGBTIQ community over the period of the review, Stewart said, “The response of the police force just wasn’t proportionate.”
Tuesday’s review is a step towards change – perhaps a formal apology by the NSW police force, and a thorough re-investigation by an independent body.
Interestingly, Stewart said, “I read some research that stated nowhere else in the world has there been anything quite like this. There’s something about the Australian psyche… and Australian culture… it’s peculiar.”
Assistant Commissioner Crandell concluded, “We undertook this review knowing we can’t change the past, but we can shape our future.”
And surely, a future where someone is not murdered by virtue of their sexuality begins with an acknowledgement and an authentic apology to the victims whose lives were violently taken from them, and justice never truly served.