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Scott Johnson death: Australian man arrested in 1988 gay hate killing

Scott JohnsonImage copyright Steve Johnson
Image caption Scott Johnson’s death was only recently re-investigated as a gay hate crime

Australian police have arrested a 49-year-old man over the decades-old murder of a gay US student in Sydney.

The body of Scott Johnson, 27, was found at the bottom of beach cliffs in 1988. Police at the time ruled it a suicide.

However, later inquiries concluded he had been killed in a hate crime. This also drew attention to other cases of homophobic killings around Sydney’s beaches in the 1980s.

Police have not yet named the suspect.

He was arrested at his home in Sydney’s northern suburbs on Tuesday morning and was due in court the same day.

Image copyright NSW POLICE
Image caption Police arrested the 49-year-old man at his home

The New South Wales police chief said it was a “career highlight” to call Scott Johnson’s brother, Steve, who lives in the US, to inform him of the arrest.

The police force has previously apologised to the family for not investigating the case properly in the 1980s and failing to protect the gay community.

“While we have a long way to go in the legal process, it must be acknowledged that if it wasn’t for the determination of the Johnson family… we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Commissioner Mick Fuller said.

‘He needed me to do this’

Scott, a gifted University of Cambridge maths student, had moved from the US to Sydney to be with his partner in 1986. He had been close to completing his PhD when he died.

His brother Steve campaigned for decades for the case to be re-investigated. He told the BBC in 2018 it was “inconceivable” that his brother had jumped off a cliff.

“This is a very emotional day,” he said in a video message on Tuesday.

“He was my best friend and he really needed me to do this.”

Image copyright NSW POLICE
Image caption Steve Johnson said the arrest was “great news” after 32 years of fighting for answers

Family petitions sparked coroner investigations in 2012 and 2015 which both recommended police reopen the case.

However no action was taken until a third inquiry in 2017 where the coroner found Scott had died as a result of a gay hate crime. Police offered a A$1m (£570,000; $645,000) cash reward in 2018 for information about the case.

Two months ago the family doubled the reward to A$2m.

It’s now estimated up to 80 gay men were murdered by homophobic gangs in and around Sydney in the late 1980s – with many pushed off cliffs.

Mr Johnson said he hoped the arrest “opens the door” for others to receive justice.

“I hope the family and friends of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what’s happened today,” he said.

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