true crime

The stories of Sydney’s dark history of gay murders that need to be told.

In 1988, 27-year-old Scott Johnson was a promising mathematician completing his doctorate.

On the morning of December 10 of that year, Johnson’s naked body was found by two fishermen and one of their sons at the bottom of a cliff in Manly. His death was ruled to be a ‘suicide’.

Thirty years, two police investigations and three coronial inquests later, it was found that Johnson’s death was the result of a gay hate attack. Even in the face of hard evidence that Johnson was likely murdered, the NSW Police Force continued to run a suicide narrative at the third inquest in 2017.

Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson, spent years lobbying for a reopening of the cold case.

During the 2017 inquest, a witness relayed how they heard a group of men known as the Narrabeen Skinheads bragging about bashing an “American f—-t” they had found naked at the very spot Johnson was found dead, and on the a Friday night during that December in 1988, according to the ABC.

Johnson’s death was one of what is believed to be hundreds of suspicious deaths of transgender people and gay men between the years of 1976 and 2000.

Scott Johnson. Image: Steve Johnson

Another high-profile case is that of WIN television newsreader Ross Warren. The 25-year-old rising star was last seen driving along Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, on July 22, 1989. His keys were found by friends on a rock at the base of a cliff at Tamarama's Marks Park, a popular gay beat of the time. His car was found nearby. His body was never recovered.

Warren's mother petitioned the NSW Police Force to investigate but her many letters were ignored until, several years later, a well-meaning police officer, Steve Page, started digging. Page's work led to a coronial inquiry in which Deputy State Coroner Jacqueline Milledge commented on the lack of police investigation into Warren's disappearance. Ms Milledge determined that Warren was likely murdered, his body lost to the sea.

While Sydney has a reputation for being one of the global meccas of the LGBTI community, its dark underbelly of gay hate crimes reveals a scar that has never healed. For hundreds of friends, partners and family members of victims, what happened to their loved ones remains unknown and, too often, these deaths were ruled as suicides.

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This is why members of the LGBTI community, friends and witnesses are being asked to come forward now and tell their stories. The NSW Government has announced a cross-party parliamentary inquiry to investigate gay hate murders between the years of 1970 and 2010. The focus of the inquiry is the response of institutions like the NSW Police Force to gay and transgender hate crimes.

The inquiry will consider, among other things, Johnson's and Warren's deaths, but also the death of John Russell, a man who was killed not far from where Warren's car was found and his body was discovered only months after Warren's disappearance. The fourth person named in the inquiry is bashing survivor Alan Rosendale.

The NSW Police Force says many of 88 reviewed cases during the 1970-2010 period are unresolved and has acknowledged homophobic bias on the part of investigators in many of the cases. It has also acknowledged that those cases where there was not enough evidence of a hate crime being committed may still be matters involving a homophobic motive.  In June this year, Assistant Commissioner Tony Crandall said that "mistakes were made".

"The community expectation of police today, and always, is to conduct thorough investigations when it comes to the death of somebody, whether that be from a family or community perspective, and we must live up to that standard," Crandall said at a press conference.

Nicholas Stewart, crime partner at Sydney LGBTI law firm Dowson Turco Lawyers, has spent six years lobbying for the parliamentary inquiry. His client, Alan Rosendale, was a victim of a gay bashing in 1989 that left him unconscious and in hospital for five days. An independent witness, Paul Simes, says he recorded the number plate of the car carrying Rosendale's assailants and confirmed with NSW Police that the car was a police car. The NSW Police Force asserts that the incident Simes witnessed was, on their intelligence, not Rosendale's bashing.

Stewart is now working with ACON NSW to encourage members of the community affected by these crimes to come forward and make a submission to the inquiry.

"It's important people act quickly because the inquiry will close on November 7, 2018," Stewart tells Mamamia.

"We are asking men and women who might have witnessed crimes to come forward with information. We know that the gangs of youth hunting gay men on Sydney's coastline were often accompanied by female friends who may have been too scared to speak up at the time - it's not just men."

Dowson Turco Lawyers and ACON NSW are holding a community forum for victims or witnesses on Thursday, October 25, 2018 from 6pm at ACON's offices at Level 3, 414 Elizabeth St, Surry Hills.

"We are offering pro bono assistance to anyone who needs help filing a submission," Stewart says.

To attend the forum or for more information, visit www.aconhealth.org.au/community_forum_gay_and_transgender_hatecrimes_1970-2010.

Join ACON's Facebook event here.

To submit to the inquiry online, go to www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/inquiries/Pages/inquiry-details.aspx?pk=2510

For help with making submissions, contact Dowson Turco Lawyers at [email protected].

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