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Society

Suspect Arrested in 1988 Death of American Man in Sydney

BRISBANE — More than 30 years after American mathematician Scott Johnson died after falling off a cliff in Sydney, a man has been charged with his death in an apparent gay hate crime that police believe was one of many over several decades in Australia's largest city.

New South Wales state police said Tuesday that a 49-year-old man who they did not name has been charged with murdering the 27-year-old Sydney-based Johnson in 1988.

They said the man was arrested at a property in Sydney's northern suburbs. He was taken to a local police station for questioning, and was later charged with murder. He was refused bail and is scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday.

Three inquests were held into Johnson's death after he was found at the base of a cliff near Manly's North Head on Dec. 10, 1988. In the first inquest, his death was ruled a suicide. The second inquest, in June 2012, returned an open finding.

However, the third inquest, in 2017, found that Johnson fell from the clifftop as the result of violence by an unidentified attacker who perceived him to be gay.

A 1 million Australian dollar ($647,000) reward for information leading to an arrest in the case was offered in 2018, and Johnson's family in March pledged to match that amount.

New South Wales state Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said in a statement Tuesday that he had been in contact with Johnson's brother Steve in Boston to inform him of the arrest.

"Making that phone call this morning is a career highlight — Steve has fought so hard for so many years, and it has been an honor be part of his fight for justice," Fuller said.

Steve Johnson said in a statement that his brother symbolizes those who lost their lives to homophobic-inspired violence.

"It's emotional for me, emotional for my family, my two sisters and brother who loved Scott dearly, my wife and three kids who never got to know their uncle," Johnson said. 

"He courageously lived his life as he wanted to. I hope the friends and families of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what's happened today and hope it opens the door to resolve some of the other mysterious deaths of men who have not yet received justice," he said.

Johnson said his brother graduated at the top of his class at CalTech and later studied at Cambridge and Harvard universities before moving to Australia.

A 2018 police review of 88 suspicious deaths from 1976 to 2000 revealed that 27 men were likely murdered for their homosexuality by gangs, with cases peaking in the late 1980s and early '90s.

ACON, New South Wales' leading sexuality and gender-diverse health organization, said it has been a long and difficult process for Johnson's family and friends.

"While this is a significant development in this particular case, it highlights the need for ongoing investigation, truth-telling and the delivery of justice for so many other gay men and trans people, who were murdered or bashed in similar cases," ACON's chief executive, Nicolas Parkhill, said in a statement.

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