Scott Johnson family hopeful new inquest will solve 30yo mystery

The family of an American man found dead at the bottom of a Sydney cliff almost 30 years ago hopes a new inquest will finally answer the question of whether he took his life, or met with foul play.

Key points:

  • Scott Johnson’s body found at bottom of Manly cliff in 1988
  • Family never accepted he took his life, rather victim of gay-hate crime
  • Bias in investigation could be mitigated by court’s “close supervision”

Scott Johnson’s body was found at the base of a 60-metre high cliff at Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches on December 10, 1988.

A NSW Police investigation and an inquest a year later ruled that Mr Johnson had committed suicide.

But Mr Johnson’s family has never accepted that ruling and his brother Steve Johnson has long been critical of the way NSW Police handled the investigation.

“[Scott] was ignored for 24 years, it’s now been more time since he died than he was alive,” Mr Johnson said outside a directions hearing.

“For Scott’s sake and our family’s sake, and to be honest, for the sake of the other families who were similarly ignored, we’re just hoping for a full investigation and getting to the bottom of what happened to him if we can.”

The area where Scott Johnson died was a well-known gay beat and Steve Johnson believes his brother’s death was the result of a gay-hate crime.

Mr Johnson has been particularly critical of the unsolved homicide investigation into his brother’s death, which began in 2012 under the leadership of Detective Chief Inspector Pamela Young.

“She simply confirmed our fears about the deep-seated bias in the case,” he said.

“There’s an illusion here that Scott’s case has been investigated for 27 years.”

Last year, state coroner Michael Barnes asked that Detective Inspector Young be taken off the investigation after she gave a candid television interview and said she believed Mr Johnson had likely taken his life.

Coroner acknowledges concerns over bias in investigation

At Thursday’s directions hearing, Mr Barnes confirmed the inquest would begin in July.

He also acknowledged the Johnson family’s concerns about bias in the police investigation but said they could be mitigated by the court’s “close supervision” of the police investigation.

24-hour telephone counselling

“These steps will address the family’s concerns about impartiality,” he said.

Outside the hearing, Steve Johnson said he was satisfied with the coroner’s decisions.

“We have been disappointed with the progress until now,” he said.

“We’re extremely happy that the coroner has asked counsel assisting to help supervise the case in conjunction with the police team to make sure that it’s well done from here on out.”

The inquest will kick off with opening remarks from counsel assisting, and statements from the solicitors acting for the Johnson family and NSW Police.

It will then adjourn for several months in the hope more witnesses and information will come to light and allow the inquest to examine fresh leads.

Until then, NSW Police has been given an additional five weeks to re-examine its own brief of evidence and redact certain parts of it.

The directions hearing heard the brief contained more than 4,000 pages of material and that NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione had appointed three additional homicide detectives to the investigation to assist with the redactions.