When Gangs Killed Gay Men for Sport in Australia
© Matthew Abbott for The New York Times - Scott Johnson’s body was discovered at the bottom of this cliff. The original ruling of suicide has been overturned, but many questions remain.
SYDNEY, Australia — On a December day in 1988, a teenager on a spearfishing expedition found a body at the bottom of one of the wild, honey-colored sandstone cliffs that line Sydney Harbor.
Naked, torn and battered by the rocks, the dead man was a promising American mathematician, Scott Johnson. His clothes were found at the top of the cliff in a neat pile with his digital watch, student ID and a $10 bill, folded in a small plastic sheath. There was no wallet, and no note.
The police concluded that Mr. Johnson, 27, had committed suicide, and a coroner agreed. Fatal leaps from the cliffs around Sydney into the fierce sea below were not uncommon, then or now.
But 28 years later, a new inquest into Mr. Johnson’s death has begun. His brother, a wealthy Boston tech entrepreneur, has pressed the Australian authorities for years to revisit the case, arguing that Mr. Johnson was murdered because he was gay and that the police failed to see it.
If so, it appears Mr. Johnson may not have been the only one.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Australian authorities now say, gangs of teenagers in Sydney hunted gay men for sport, sometimes forcing them off the cliffs to their deaths. But the police, many of whom had a reputation for hostility toward gay men, often carried out perfunctory investigations that overlooked the possibility of homicide, former officials and police officers say.
Now the police in New South Wales, the state that includes Sydney, are reviewing the deaths of 88 men between 1976 and 2000 to determine whether they should be classified as anti-gay hate crimes.
About 30 of the cases remain unsolved, and the police have not said how many of the killings were tied to gangs. About a dozen victims were found dead at the bottom of cliffs or in the sea, the police say.
“The police culture in Australia up to the early 1990s was hostile to gay men,” Michael Kirby, a retired High Court justice who served during that period, wrote in an email. “They were basically considered antisocial, low-level criminals and lowlife types who did disgusting things and should not be surprised that they got injured and even killed.”
According to a report by Sue Thompson, a former state-appointed liaison between the New South Wales police and gays, one of the assailants told the police: “The easiest thing with a cliff is just herding them over the edge.”
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