There is before the catastrophe and there is after. Life bisects for Steve Johnson.
On a trip to visit family in Newport Beach in December 1988, he called to check his answering machine back home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was alarmed to hear the voice of his brother’s partner, Michael Noone, calling from Australia. “Please get in contact with me over a matter of grave urgent importance,” Noone later remembered saying. Back then, phoning across continents was often expensive. Noone had called about 2 a.m. in his time zone. Steve sensed something was wrong with his younger brother and best friend, Scott.
Johnson lived in Cambridge with his wife and their infant daughter. He’d grown up poor and fatherless but found his way to college and had begun work on a dissertation at Harvard on social trust in capitalist societies. Scott had perhaps an even more promising future before him. He’d amazed professors at Caltech and the University of Cambridge, in Britain, with his innate understanding of category theory, a branch of mathematics, before leaving for Australia in 1986 to live with Noone, a musicologist he’d met in England.
Steve eventually reached Noone, who explained that he’d grown worried when Scott had gone out two days earlier and not returned home. “Now he’s dead,” Noone said.
Police found Scott’s body at the bottom of a cliff near Sydney, in the state of New South Wales. Through tears, Steve asked how he had died. Noone didn’t know. Steve retreated to his in-laws’ bedroom and cried for hours before his wife discovered and comforted him.
Steve felt shocked and distraught — and baffled. A few months before, Scott had stayed with Steve and his wife in Cambridge for three weeks. Home videos show a shy, gentle Scott, laughing and dancing. He was excited to finish his dissertation and meet Steve’s daughter. Now he was inexplicably gone.
Desperate for answers, Steve flew to Australia. There, he met with Troy Hardie, a New South Wales constable in his mid-20s. They spoke at the small police station in Manly, a beach town a half-hour ferry’s ride from Sydney. With its idyllic waves and rocky shores, Manly attracts legions of tourists.
But the town has a hidden, disturbing past. Signs dotting the landscape memorialize the indigenous people who originally lived on the land but were mostly killed by smallpox brought by European colonists in the late 18th century. (The town’s name is derived from the “manly behaviour” settlers believed the clan possessed.) Locals know still more secrets are buried in the beaches.
Hardie told Steve that on the morning of December 10 two men and a 13-year-old boy had been spearfishing near the bottom of a cliff called Blue Fish Point. They spotted Scott’s shattered naked body, but initially mistook it for an animal. A storm had raged the previous night, soaking the corpse. The trio drove to the police station, about a mile away, and told Hardie what they’d found.
A while later four cops showed up near Blue Fish Point, part of a shrub-covered stretch of clifftops called North Head, accessible only on foot. Scott’s body had been discovered on the sand and rocks about 200 feet beneath the cliff. Curiously, his clothes were at the top of the cliff, 10 meters back from the edge. His blue pants, white socks, green underwear, white Adidas running shoes, and a long-sleeved shirt — described in a police report as “bone coloured” — had been stacked neatly on the cliff. One person described the clothes as “meticulously and neatly folded.” Also found were a black felt-tip pen, a digital watch, a comb, a key, a card for the Canberra Building Society, a student ID, and a ten-dollar bill. Scott’s wallet was missing.
Hardie told Steve that he believed the body, which had massive head and torso injuries, had been there for up to two days. Scott had clearly jumped, he said. People went to the spot to commit suicide, especially gay men, Steve remembered him saying.
“Did you know your brother was a homosexual?” he asked Steve.
Steve did know; Scott had come out about four years earlier. But Steve didn’t think his brother’s sexuality meant he killed himself. The police thought it did. Noone had only reluctantly told Hardie that he and Scott were in a relationship (he later said he feared police discrimination). Noone’s sister said a police officer had told her her brother was a “poofter,” derogatory slang for a gay man.
Noone also told police that Scott had unsuccessfully tried to kill himself three years before by nearly jumping from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge because he feared he had AIDS. Steve was in disbelief — he had never known his brother to be depressed, let alone suicidal.
After hearing Noone’s story, police quickly closed the case. Officers told a newspaper there had been “no suspicious circumstances.”
That assessment astounded Steve. What about Scott’s missing wallet? Or dying naked in public? Decades later, Hardie conceded that while he regularly retrieved bodies from North Head, Scott was the only person found naked.
Steve told Hardie that Scott had been planning his future. He didn’t drink heavily or use drugs or have any enemies. Steve suggested the police pull phone records, talk to Scott’s friends, and reconstruct his final days. Police hadn’t even gone to Scott’s residence to collect evidence; the officers who’d retrieved Scott’s body weren’t even homicide detectives. Hardie seemed sympathetic but unmoved. There would be no investigation. The suicide explanation had already solidified.
Steve insisted Hardie go with him to Blue Fish Point. There, he scrounged for clues at the cliff and beach, hoping the grass and rocks would reveal secrets. He waded through grains of sand searching for a note or a weapon or anything that might have been washed away in the storm. Nothing. Hardie looked on, humoring him.
Steve left Australia more puzzled than ever, his grief compounded by confusion. He typed a 50-page memo on the case, including the known facts and details on Scott’s background. He outlined scenarios for what happened and suggested avenues for investigation.
“There is a preponderance of evidence against the theory that Scott Johnson committed suicide,” the memo said. Steve sent it to Hardie and waited.
In August I visited Steve’s Cambridge home. Their three children now grown, he and his wife had recently downsized to a house just off “Professors’ Row,” so nicknamed for the many faculty members living in the area. The scent of fresh paint hung in the air as we sat at his dining-room table.
Steve wore sneakers, a turquoise shirt, and green shorts. His salt-and-pepper hair is shaggy, almost Beatles-esque, and with his trim build and blue eyes, he resembles Robert Redford. He held a large Starbucks coffee mug with “Melbourne” printed on it, and we shared leftover pizza and spaghetti while we talked.
For 30 years, Steve battled New South Wales authorities over his brother’s death. Yet he is neither morose nor cynical. He is cheerful and energetic, and he laughs and cries easily. He remains close with his family and passionate about his work. When he opened Google Earth on his laptop so that we could view Blue Fish Point and North Head, he expressed wonder. “Even I am amazed at technology still, even though I’m super familiar with so much of it,” he said.
After Scott died, Steve dropped out of graduate school. With a second baby on the way and his father-in-law ill, he needed money. He moved to California and worked odd jobs. In 1992, he and some friends started a company that developed an image-compression technology that would enable users to send digital pictures faster, an incredible edge in the burgeoning online world. In 1996, they sold the technology for $100 million to AOL, where Steve became a vice president.
AOL soon became one of the world’s biggest companies. The windfall presented Steve with an unexpected question: What would he do now that he never had to work again? He’d always been a dreamer, devising grandiose plans and projects, like preventing nuclear war and writing code to create the best spreadsheet. Finding out how Scott died was the grandest project of all.
On the table before us sat a book Steve had made. It contained Scott’s pictures, letters, postcards and academic writing, the detritus of a shortened life, scanned, printed, and bound for each of Steve’s three children. The kids learned that Uncle Scott liked to climb. He loved Beethoven, dogs, philosophy and “Lord of the Rings.” One 1973 photo shows 11-year-old Scott with Piper, the family’s Welsh corgi. Steve smiled as he held it up. It’s one of his favorites.
They’d had a miserable childhood, surviving on welfare and pinballing around the bad parts of town. Nerdy outcasts that they were, they both managed to find their way to college. Steve attended the University of Southern California and then Harvard. Scott graduated from Caltech in 1983 and studied for a year at the University of Cambridge in England. The summer of 1984 found them in Los Angeles, where they programmed computers and built software for a garment manufacturer.
Late one night they walked through the Meatpacking District to buy soda. The summer heat accentuated the smell of freshly slaughtered meat as Scott struggled to explain a new relationship in his life. Steve tried to decipher what his tongue-tied brother wanted to say. Did he get the girl pregnant or something? Scott replied that his partner wasn’t a girl. Stunned, Steve realized he didn’t know something so fundamental about the person he knew best. In 1984, he recalls, there wasn’t “suspecting someone of being gay.”
Scott was just as unsure about how homosexuality worked. They spent the summer discussing it, Steve said. “Like, ‘What does it mean to be gay? Is this a choice? Is this something you feel like you were destined for?’ He and I were pretty analytical.”
All Scott knew was that he’d fallen for Michael Noone a few months earlier. Five years older, outgoing, accomplished, financially secure, and intellectual, Noone knew how to navigate the world as a gay man. “There was something very vulnerable about Scott,” Noone recalled. “He was somebody who needed some kind of protection.”
In 1986, Scott moved to Canberra, Australia’s capital city, to live with Noone. Once a week he commuted to Sydney, a three-hour drive, to continue his doctorate work. Ross Street, Scott’s adviser, said he was the sort of student who could ace a 20-question exam and correct the professor’s errors along the way. Experts in the field already regarded him as one of the best mathematicians of his generation. Scott also flourished outside the classroom. He grew close to Noone’s family, who housed Scott in Sydney. Through Noone, he gained entrée into New South Wales’ vibrant gay community. As in the post-Stonewall US, Australia’s gay community had become increasingly visible in the 1970s and ’80s.
On December 8, 1988, Scott was in Sydney, where he discussed his research with his adviser. Street informed his student that he had enough material to earn his doctorate.
Two days later Scott was dead.
Steve would call the next year the worst of his life. He tried to focus on school and his infant daughter, but Scott haunted his sleep. In Steve’s dreams, the brothers would be talking or walking, alive and well. He would awaken to find Scott still inexplicably gone. The exhaustion of heartbreak would wash over him all over again.
To cope, Steve tried to accept the suicide story. Maybe Scott had tried to take his life before. Perhaps a fight with Noone pushed Scott to impulsive suicide? The latter didn’t make sense. At the time of Scott’s death, Noone had described their relationship as “exemplary.”
“Scott was not just my lover, my boyfriend, my partner — he was also my best friend,” Noone said later. He too experienced an emotional breakdown after Scott died.
Steve couldn’t live with his doubts. Through a Harvard connection, he had Sen. Ted Kennedy ask the US ambassador to Australia to encourage the New South Wales government to carry out an inquest, in which a state official, called a coroner, leads an investigation into a death. In 1989, Steve returned to Australia for the inquest and hired a lawyer.
The inquest uncovered some surprising revelations. During the proceedings, Noone claimed that Scott had cheated on him in Sydney six months before his death, and said that he had been guilt-ridden and depressed at his infidelity. He implied that Scott might have cheated again in December 1988 and killed himself out of shame. But why, Steve wondered, hadn’t Noone mentioned the unfaithfulness and subsequent depression to police at the outset?
Noone has said he’s “sick to death” about Steve’s questions surrounding his conversations with police. He didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
In the inquest, a Manly detective sergeant also testified that some areas in Sydney were popular with gay men. Police knew of their existence because they attracted antigay violence. North Head, where Scott had been found, wasn’t one of those areas, she said. This seemed odd to Steve. Scott wasn’t alive to say whether he’d experienced any violence there. But her assessment carried weight.
In March 1989, the inquest determined “there is no doubt that he did jump from that cliff with the intention of taking his own life.” The report did not address why Scott was naked or missing his wallet. It did find that Scott was intelligent, shy, and homosexual, which matched the profile of “the type of person who quite frequently does commit suicide.” How any of that correlated with suicide the report did not explain.
The case was again closed, for more than 15 years.
Steve returned home. He’d doubted the suicide explanation, but couldn’t discount it either. He had to move on. He had a wife and daughter, along with debts to pay on a student’s stipend. He’d maxed out his credit by hiring the lawyer. When his father-in-law got sick, he left Harvard and the family moved to California.
Then came the lucky years. Selling his company allowed him to pay off his debts — as well as buy a mansion (from the inventor of Armor All), a house in Wyoming, a place in the San Bernardino Mountains, and a private jet.
For all this good fortune, Steve understood the cruel arbitrariness of chance. Chance had brought him great wealth, but it had also deprived him of his brother. Genius and riches can’t protect a man from the ravages of the world.
After leaving AOL in 1999, Steve returned to Cambridge. By 2005, he seemed set for the life of a wealthy tech guru: travel, investments, philanthropy, family, mountain climbing. Then, in March of that year, he received an envelope in the mail from Michael Noone. After falling out over the investigation into Scott’s death, they hadn’t spoken in years. Steve noted that the letter was postmarked locally. Noone had become a professor at Boston College and lived just miles away.
Standing in his kitchen, Steve opened the envelope. Inside, he found two Sydney Morning Herald articles paperclipped to a handwritten note from Noone. The stories described the results of a just-concluded inquest into the deaths of three men in Sydney in the 1980s. Two had disappeared and one had been found dead at separate times around cliffs in the city’s southern beaches. The authorities at the time never resolved the first disappearance and deemed the other two accidents.
But the inquest determined that two of them had been murdered and the third man had also likely been murdered by roving teenagers “who as a pack bashed, robbed, and murdered men at known gay beats,” places where gay men would congregate for casual sex, the Herald reported. Beats attracted marauders in an era of rampant and sometimes violent antigay prejudice. One story quoted a victim attacked on a cliff whose assailants threatened to “throw him off where the other one went off.”
One report quoted a survivor who’d told police that he’d been beaten by mobs who threatened to throw them off the cliffs. Of the few assailants who were caught and convicted, some proud of what they’d done. “Dirty f—— maggot … he should have gone went off the cliff that night but he didn’t … we went down and put a cigarette butt out on his head,” one man in prison for antigay violence was secretly recorded as saying in 1991.
According to the stories, police now lacked evidence to convict anybody in the three murders. But the inquest criticized authorities for running an inept, apathetic investigation into the murders, calling them “inadequate,” “naïve,” and “disgraceful.”
Steve spent the day reading the articles and crying. Then he found and read the entire inquest into the deaths of the three men. Beginning in 2001, dozens of witnesses, cops, victims, and perpetrators of related antigay violence in New South Wales testified about the violence at a park near Bondi Beach, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. At least five homicides of gay men in the southern part of New South Wales occurred between 1989 and 1990. The inquest determined that the number might be higher if murders had been misclassified as accidents or suicides. Plus, there were surely unreported attacks. “Many of the brutal attacks went unsolved,” the inquiry said. “All assaults and killings were unprovoked and vicious.”
According to the coroner’s statement accompanying the finished inquiry, New South Wales police in the 1980s and 1990s knew a number of gangs “systematically engaged in the assault and robbery of gay men” at Sydney beats. But “the gangs believed they were ‘safe'” from police attention. The reality, she concluded, was that the “police attitude to gay victims was far from satisfactory.”
It was agonizing reading for Steve. But it suggested, at last, what actually happened to Scott.
As Steve would come to learn, the freedom Scott enjoyed in Australia existed alongside a rising tide of antigay bigotry. After the country diagnosed its first AIDS case in 1982, many conservative politicians and church groups blamed the disease on gay men. Homosexuality was legalized in New South Wales only in 1984.
“The ‘fact’ that gays caused AIDS was used to justify sheer prejudice and violence towards homosexuals,” historian Paul Sendziuk wrote in “Learning to Trust: Australian Responses to AIDS.” ACON, then the AIDS Council of New South Wales, tracked violent incidents against gays, tallying more than 20 daily attacks on certain days.
For Steve, horrifying knowledge replaced more than 15 years of excruciating uncertainty. Scott’s case seemed virtually identical to those described in the Herald stories. The possibility that his brother had been murdered explained what the suicide theory couldn’t.
Steve found that police were unwilling to look into it. Scott’s case wasn’t even cold; it was closed, twice determined a suicide by authorities. Most of the murders he read about in the articles and inquest had occurred around Bondi Beach, 15 miles from Manly, where Scott’s body had been found. Police had already declared at the inquest that Blue Fish Point wasn’t a beat. No violence had been reported there.
Steve thought, what if the police were wrong?
In 2007 Steve met a former Newsweek reporter named Daniel Glick. He had gained prominence covering the JonBenét Ramsey case. He’d investigated an unsolved murder and botched police work.
Steve found Glick gregarious and unpretentious. Glick, whose wife had left him and their two children for another woman 1,000 miles away, had a brother who died of cancer. He felt he could relate to Steve’s pain. Steve asked Glick to travel to Australia to find information relevant to Scott’s death.
Glick had never done private investigative work but figured it was similar to reporting. “What’s different about it except the pay scale?” he said.
In May 2007, Glick visited Manly on Steve’s behalf. On his first day, he went jogging near North Head. There, he talked to a sewage worker who said he’d been working in the area for decades. Glick pointed to the cliff: Might it be a place where gay men met for sex?
“All the time,” the worker said. He and his coworkers often saw men hanging around a parking lot there and disappearing together into the bushes, which he called “love nests.” He recalled seeing naked men there, hearing “lovers’ spats,” and once stumbled upon men having sex. He said his colleagues had similar experiences.
In one day Glick had credible information that Blue Fish Point was a beat, a well-known beat, in fact, less than two miles from the Manly police station. How could cops not know about it?
It didn’t take long for Glick to find gay men who’d had sex at Blue Fish Point. One said it was so secluded that men would strip and walk around naked while waiting for a partner to emerge. Another man, a 63-year-old nicknamed Sadie, said he had once taken off his clothes to “sunbake” at North Head and had sex with a man who plunged a knife into his back afterward and left him near the cliff. He pulled up his shirt and showed Glick his scar. Another guy described how men, while waiting for a partner, would remove their clothes and neatly fold them, a signal that they were ready for a rendezvous.
There was more. Glick heard about incidents where a man had been lured up to the cliff by another man, only to be assaulted by a gang. He spoke with someone who said his friend had witnessed, from a nearby apartment window, a man who survived being thrown from Blue Fish Point. Glick found the forensic pathologist who’d conducted Scott’s autopsy. He said that because the police had told him that Scott had killed himself, he hadn’t conducted as thorough an autopsy as he would have otherwise. Police hadn’t taken any photographs of where Scott died, done other forensic work, visited his residency, or even notified his family, according to Steve. (The police did not respond to a request for comment.)
While in Manly, Glick also found a single short notice about Scott’s death, from the December 14, 1988, edition of the Manly Daily. “Police believe he had been dead for several days,” it read.
Glick knew the press in the 1980s routinely coded references to homosexuality. Glick wondered if, perhaps, antigay beatings and murders had been misreported. Following his hunch, he found numerous reports in the Manly Daily about attacks on men at North Head and the surrounding area seemingly described in euphemisms. One man in 1988 reported being attacked and robbed at 3 a.m. while he “was sitting in his car at the lookout” at a beat a short drive from North Head.
Glick also found stories about “hoodlum patrols” — police units, some of them undercover, who arrested people for crimes ranging from underage drinking, to hooliganism, to drug dealing. In 1977, the Manly Daily reported that a similar patrol arrested more than 90 men – some in connection with “homosexual activities at North Head.” He unearthed a story from 1988, published shortly before Scott died, that reported the arrests of 61 offenders by Manly’s hoodlum patrol.
Glick had covered violence for years. “I’m kind of an old-school journalist,” he said, but his discoveries in Manly haunt him. “I’m a middle-aged white guy, straight and privileged, but it affected me to know what it was like to be a gay man in those years — and still is.”
Manly residents told Glick about a local man who said he had been part of a gang that assaulted more than 50 gay men. Sure enough, in the library he discovered a Sydney Morning Herald article from 1987 describing the arrests of three young men. They had been charged with 40 crimes, including assault and robbery of gays in northern Sydney.
Glick went to the courthouse and pulled the man’s arrest records and court documents. He found that the man’s gang had turned Manly into a hunting ground for gay men, brutally beating and robbing them at beats. While the gang members all faced trial, the man, despite his lengthy rap sheet, had received a sentence of just 18 months — a sentence he would serve partly by washing cars in weekend detention. His light sentence was particularly curious because it contrasted with other members of his gang, one of whom pleaded guilty and served five years’ hard labor.
In 2017, Duncan McNab, a former Manly criminal investigator, published “Getting Away With Murder,” a book on Sydney’s decades of antigay violence. In it, he identified the man who got the light sentence as Vojko Spadina. McNab also said Spadina and his crew had been in Sydney District Court for a procedural hearing on the same week that Scott Johnson was last known to be alive. McNab cautions that the ties between Spadina and Scott were tenuous. “I’d want to see more evidence,” he told me.
But, thanks to the source who told him about Spadina, Glick now had a solid lead. An American amateur lacking the resources, knowledge, and connections available to police discovered in days what authorities hadn’t in years. The revelation that gay men stripped and arranged their clothes neatly explained why Scott was naked and his clothes were folded, one of the biggest mysteries for Steve. And Glick had accrued evidence that, whatever police claimed, antigay violence plagued North Head.
Emboldened by their discoveries, Steve and Glick sent Manly Police a 12-page memo that included telephone numbers of witnesses and sources, as well as avenues for investigation and people of interest. They also sent it to the coroner, who had uncovered the epidemic of assaults in Bondi discussed in the articles that Noone had sent Steve.
The coroner attested to the material Glick and Steve sent her and wrote a letter to the New South Wales police commander. “Should you feel this ‘cold case’ is better suited to the Homicide Unit, would you please facilitate that review?” she wrote. She stopped short of ordering a new investigation into Scott’s death. But the implication was clear.
It marked an incredible victory. Nearly two decades after Scott had died, an influential and experienced New South Wales public official suggested that she thought Scott’s case should be reopened because it fit the pattern of antigay murders. Finally, it seemed, authorities were legitimizing Steve’s pain, and taking seriously the possibility that Scott had not killed himself.
But the police weren’t taking the possibility seriously. In response to the coroner, a homicide detective wrote an unsigned 17-page memo. The detective, whose identity is still unknown, repeatedly wrote that, at the inquest into Scott’s death, Steve’s lawyer had neither refuted the finding of suicide nor objected to the New South Wales police work. It was a curious claim. In the same memo, the detective also said that just a month after Scott had died, Steve wrote a 40-page report to the police suggesting Scott hadn’t killed himself and the investigation was incomplete.
“The JOHNSON case is not ‘eerily similar’ as described by GLICK in his correspondence and is geographically distant from the cases” of antigay assaults that occurred, the detective wrote. As evidence for that claim, the detective cited only the police’s earlier claim that North Head wasn’t a beat.
The detective also wrote that Michael Noone had previously written to the police with a startling claim: Steve rejected Scott’s homosexuality. According to the memo, Noone also claimed that Scott was estranged from his homophobic parents.
“There is no evidence to support anything other than suicide,” the detective wrote. “It would appear underlying motives for suicide could relate to feelings of estrangement from parents and lack of approval from his brother.”
The detective continued by suggesting that Steve felt guilty for driving Scott to kill himself: “It is possible that the requests from the brother stem from underlying desire to have the finding changed to a more palatable, and less personal, one which externalises blame to other persons.”
The detective recommended no further action be taken beyond asking Noone more questions.
The detective had another request, referring to the form itself: “I recommend it not be divulged to the JOHNSON family.”
The detective’s appraisal was devastating to the search for answers to Scott’s death. But Steve didn’t know about it because the New South Wales police took the detective’s advice and put the case to bed for three years, without telling Steve. He got no answers to his phone calls and emails. To his fury and anguish, the police, again, stalled.
Steve couldn’t understand why the New South Wales police seemed so opposed to investigating Scott’s death. At this point, he didn’t know who he was dealing with. He would soon find out.
In late 1998, an New South Wales cop told the state Crime Commission, a government-created corporation with unique investigative and intelligence-gathering powers, that he and other police had been engaged in “police corruption and criminal activity … over a lengthy period,” according to an official report produced by Operation Florida. The informant, whose name was never released, then wore a wire for two and a half years. As part of the investigation, called Operation Florida, the Crime Commission set up wiretaps, secret integrity tests, and video surveillance of police officers. The results were so devastating that they led to public hearings that began in October 2001 and lasted until late 2003.
The hearings investigated corruption allegations stretching back to the late 1980s. They featured 99 witnesses who revealed widespread and systemic corruption, a total of 418 instances of police misconduct ranging from “soliciting and receiving bribes from drug dealers,” to “reducing charges in return for payment,” to “perverting the course of justice.” A total of 50 current and former cops were found to have been somehow involved (Troy Hardie, who left the force in 1996, was not among them and declined to speak for this article). The report said “much of the corrupt conduct exposed during these hearings extended to the relevant supervisors in each unit.”
Numerous New South Wales commands were shown to be crooked. But “the most recent corrupt activity” occurred at the Manly police station that Steve had visited in 1988, the report said.
Since the 1980s, cops in Manly had been extorting drug dealers for bribes, planted evidence on suspected dealers, falsified paperwork, sold drugs they stole, and stole money and property while executing search warrants, according to the report. As a result of Operation Florida, six Manly cops were convicted and sentenced to prison in connection with these charges. They were the only police charged during the entire investigation; the rest resigned from the force or investigators recommended against charging them.
David Patison and Raymond Peattie, two of the most corrupt Manly police officers, according to Operation Florida’s findings, had led the investigation into Vojko Spadina, the man convicted of assaulting gay men in Sydney around the time Scott died. During Glick’s investigation, a source had made a shocking allegation: Spadina had received his light sentence because his brother, Radoslav “Ray” Spadina, had bribed the Manly police. (Ray Spadina’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.)
The claim wouldn’t have surprised some veteran watchers of the New South Wales force. According to a 2017 book on Australia’s drug trade coauthored by Clive Small, a former detective and New South Wales police commissioner, Ray Spadina had been selling drugs in Sydney since the early 1980s.
Spadina had a long history of trafficking drugs in Sydney, beginning around the early 1980s when Spadina was in his twenties. His actions led to several police investigations, but each time he avoided being arrested or charged with anything beyond traffic offenses, Small wrote. How? Small wrote that the reason was clear: “As one law enforcement [source] who worked on Spadina said, ‘He was well connected with corrupt police and was able to stay one step ahead of us all the time,'” Small writes in “The Dark Side.” Ray Spadina has never been charged with crimes related to police corruption and Small’s claims are his own. Only in 2015 was Ray finally sentenced — to a minimum of six and a half years, despite being a major drug player conspiring to import AUD $52.5 million in drugs.
After Scott died, Vojko served his curiously light sentence for his antigay attacks. Patison and Peattie had overseen the investigation into his violent spree. Both were convicted in Operation Florida of taking bribes from drug dealers, among other crimes. After their release, they attended Vojko’s wedding.
The police corruption and intransigence seemed insurmountable to Steve. But then, spurred by media attention Steve and Glick drummed up, the coroner in April 2015 ordered police to reopen the case, overturning their suicide verdict and mandating a second inquest. It had been five years since Steve sent the coroner and police the memo of Glick’s findings — more time for witnesses to die, memories to fade, evidence to crumble. Still, Scott Johnson was no longer officially listed as having died by suicide, a public confirmation of what Steve had always believed.
“At no point since I got those letters,” he told me, “have I ever wanted to give up on it. And it’s attracted a lot of people who feel the same way.”
But the police, facing a huge backlog of unsolved murders, did not seem eager to investigate this cold case from 1988 of a gay America, especially since it cast a spotlight on what was, at best, their own poor work.
Then in late 2012, “Australian Story,” a prominent national television news program, approached Steve about doing an entire 29-minute episode on his decades-long quest for justice. He agreed, as did Glick, Noone’s sister, and a professor who knew Scott. (Noone declined to speak for the episode.)
“There is no doubt in my mind that the place where Scott’s body was found, the cliffs above that, were a gay beat,” Garry Wotherspoon, a historian, said on the program. One former police officer interviewed said the official investigations had been shoddy. Scott’s death, she believed, was “definitely a homicide.”
But John Lehmann, the New South Wales’ deputy chief inspector, also appeared in the show.
“There was no evidence of foul play,” he said. “Scott’s partner provided some information that either Scott attempted suicide or contemplated suicide in the United States some years prior to his death in 1988.”
Lehmann added, “This matter has been investigated and looked at numerous times.”
Steve and Glick flew to Sydney to hold a press conference to coincide with the airing of the show. They brought notebooks with all the investigation’s key documents and planned to hand copies to the mayor, members of parliament, and the minister of police.
Then, hours before the show aired, police called Steve to tell him they were offering a $100,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the conviction of Scott’s killer. They wanted him to announce it at the press conference. Steve agreed, more amused than encouraged.
Reporters and TV crews attended the press conference on February 12, 2013.
“This is an opportunity to bring not closure but justice to a community that has lived in fear and distrust for so many years,” Steve said. But he cautioned that the real investigation was just beginning. “I feel we’re finally back to where we should have been on December 10, 1988.”
Chris Olen, the head of homicide, sat alongside Steve. He maintained that the cause of Scott’s death remained undetermined, even as the police garnered attention by offering a reward. He told reporters, “At this stage, it is not known whether Scott’s death is a result of suicide, misadventure or murder.” Steve wasn’t giving up. Nor were police.
In April 2013, Glick received a cryptic email from a man in his mid-40s. He had followed the story of Scott Johnson, who had become a household name in Australia, and said he might have some useful information.
Glick phoned the man, whom he and Steve would later nickname “Freddy.” They spoke for nearly an hour. Freddy said that in the 1980s, he and a group of friends would stalk the beats in Sydney, including at North Head, for gay men. Every Friday and Saturday for years, he would approach men he thought were gay and bait them into going to a secluded place. The rest of the group would emerge from the bushes, then beat and rob the men. Freddy said the robberies funded their nightclub outings.
After the beatings, the friends would go to Freddy’s house. There they would wash the blood off their hands and shoes, counting their money and laughing about their exploits. He said he believed the group had committed murders, though he did not say whether any were related to gay bashing. He said he himself had never assaulted or killed anyone — he’d only been the lure, he claimed. He said the group committed many more assaults over a longer time than anyone knew.
Steve and Glick persuaded Freddy to speak to police. Freddy even took the police to North Head, where he walked them through how he and his crew would attack and rob gay men. They simply hated gays, who were easy targets, he said. Sometimes, he said, they would rob three or four men in 20 minutes and head back in their car. Four of his associates had been convicted of antigay assaults in the area back in the 1980s, he said. The names of Freddy’s gang associates have never been released, but documents published from the inquest show dates, locations, and other information that matches up with the timing of the Spadina gang’s activities.
Freddy was the best lead Steve had ever had. But there were many other people and gangs bashing gays in the area around the same time. And behind the scenes relations between police and Steve had disintegrated, after the lead cold-case investigator in New South Wales grew offended over his second-guessing of their work.
In 2015, she submitted a 445-page report to the coroner, calling it “unlikely” that Scott had been “victim of a bias-motivated crime.” There wasn’t a “pattern of escalating violence” at the cliff, and it wasn’t a “viable location” for antigay murder, she maintained. Freddy’s comments were vague and sometimes contradictory, she added. She argued, once again, that Scott had probably killed himself, citing Noone’s comments about his previous suicide attempt and guilt over an affair.
The news baffled journalists. “One man dares to confess to gay bashings: why won’t police believe him?” a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald read. In an interview with the paper, Freddy expressed his surprise at the investigator’s assessment, but said that “it doesn’t matter to me as long as I got that off my chest.”
Over the decades, Steve’s most difficult challenge has not been accepting Scott’s death, or in finding meaning in life after tragedy. It hasn’t even been countering the hate that led to his brother’s murder. Instead, the bulk of Steve’s time, energy and will, has been devoted to battling police indifference and intransigence.
I once asked Steve why he persisted. Why not just buy a beach house and live life under a coconut tree? “This is the most important, one of the most important things there is to me,” he told me. “It’s a way of helping Scott, and honoring Scott, and defending him. Because he was defenseless when he died, and he needs me.”
Scott’s day still awaited, however. In 2015, a recently appointed New South Wales coroner ordered yet another inquest — the third — into his death. It marked only the second time that a third coroner’s inquest had been opened in Australia (the other being the famous case where a dingo killed a woman’s baby). But unlike the previous ones, the third would be conducted by a more proactive police force. Authorities and the media actually, for the first time in decades, encouraged anyone with information to come forward. For the first time, many did.
During the inquest, hearings delved into the history of Sydney’s beats and the violence they attracted. The testimony attracted nationwide attention. For victims, families, former perpetrators, and the people who knew them, the proceedings offered them their first opportunity to speak about their experiences.
Absent the inquest, an entire history of Sydney life might never have come to light. One politician later said of Steve’s doggedness: “He’s allowed Australia and Sydney to open up about a scary time for the gay and transgender community and let us face that and talk about that.”
The hearings showed how hatred multiplies with social sanction, how jokes and slurs lead to skulls being crushed and backs being sliced open. And how, for decades, members of the Sydney LGBTQ community lived in fear, afraid to live their lives lest they end up at the bottom of some cliff. “It was never just a wave,” a former New South Wales police gay-and-lesbian liaison officer, told reporters. “It is much more accurate to describe it as an epidemic.”
In May 2016, New South Wales police announced plans to review the deaths of 88 men killed between 1976 and 2000 to determine whether they should be classified as antigay hate crimes. About 30 of those deaths were unsolved. The scale of the wave of violent homophobia that engulfed New South Wales was staggering, beyond what had ever been publicized.
“We can now see that predators were attacking gay men,” a former New South Wales police minister from the late 1980s told a reporter. “And they were doing it with the almost-certain knowledge that the police would not have gone after them. That was the police culture of the day.”
One of those who came forward during the inquest was Michael Allen. In April 2015, he told police that about six months before Scott died, they met at a bar in Sydney’s gay district. Allen swiftly fell for Scott’s brilliance and “killer smile,” and said he was “totally in awe of him.” Allen said the two men had sex four times over several weeks, but it was clear that Scott wanted nothing serious. Allen was heartbroken but said Scott clearly enjoyed casual sex.
This new testimony contradicted Noone’s claims that an affair could have led Scott into a depression, claims police had repeatedly cited as evidence that Scott had killed himself. Steve had never needed convincing that his brother hadn’t taken his own life, but the rest of the world had. Allen’s story proved invaluable in helping convince them.
In 2017, Steve waited in a Sydney courtroom for the results of the third inquest. He feared that yet another investigation would deny the obvious about Scott. But this time was different. The coroner determined that “Scott died as a result of a gay-hate attack.” The coroner blasted police for concluding that Scott had killed himself without properly investigating his death, and said that Scott “fell from the cliff top as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.” Steve had been waiting to hear those words since he read the articles Noone sent him. “We won,” he thought.
But the coroner also said that, despite Steve’s efforts, the information from Freddy, and Glick’s investigation, not enough evidence existed to definitively identify Scott’s murderer. It was heartbreaking. But Steve had stopped believing that New South Wales police would ever properly investigate Scott’s murder. Even if they did, nearly 30 years had elapsed and solving the case would be nearly impossible.
The week following the verdict of the third inquest, the Australian Parliament overwhelmingly voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Coming so soon after the verdict, it seemed to Steve like the biggest victory he could expect. Members of parliament thanked him for his efforts. True justice for Scott may forever remain out of reach, but at least Australia had made a huge step toward rejecting the homophobia that had led to his death. In 2018, the New South Wales police announced an AUD $1 million reward for information leading to the prosecution and conviction of Scott’s killer.
For Steve, the hardest part of investigating his brother’s death has not been the grief itself. True, he has never gotten closure. But perhaps closure is only a myth, a temporary strategy for relieving pain without ever erasing it.
“He’s still a part of me. I don’t see it as a grim duty,” Steve said about his efforts to solve the mystery of Scott’s death. “I see it as something that keeps me close to him.”
And yet Steve’s life seems defined by a combination of triumph and tragedy.
“Scott was so present in Steve’s mind,” Glick said. “Obsession is not too strong a word. That ghost was present in that family for a long time.”
In March 2019, a new commissioner for New South Wales police surprised Steve by asking him to meet in Boston. Over a plate of chicken, Steve outlined the leads in Scott’s case. Freddy had never been properly used, for instance, and Vojko Spadina’s bizarrely light sentence in 1988 has never been properly explained. The commissioner, eating his steak, responded that he would investigate Scott’s death thoroughly and genuinely.
Steve left the four-hour dinner skeptical but hopeful. For the first time, New South Wales police actually seemed interested in his brother’s case.
In March 2020, he returned to Sydney to offer $1 million in addition to the existing reward. At the press conference to announce the award, reporters clacked on their keyboards and snapped photographs.
“Please, do it for Scott, do it for all gay men who were subject to hate crime, and now, do it for yourself,” Steve said.
While Steve recounted the history of New South Wales police obstinacy, he complimented the newfound vigor the commissioner, who agreed with Steve’s assessment of the department’s past failures. After all these years, the police were finally on his side.
And then, later that week, police announced they had a suspect in Scott’s murder. Their 2018 announcement of a $1 million reward had encouraged aging Sydney men to spill their long-held secrets, men who witnessed bigoted violence long ago and would otherwise have taken their eyewitness accounts to their graves. Maybe they came forward for the money. Maybe they came forward because Australia no longer hates its LGBT community. Maybe they came forward because their souls were dying. Whatever it was, police have received numerous leads and are now focused on a single person.
Steve was shocked. He communicates with the police regularly, but is not privy to the investigation’s details. He’s just grateful that an investigation is underway, and that it might conclude with an arrest.
For Steve, an arrest would signal that the police had evolved and shaken off its indifference to the murders of gay men. It would also “resolve dozens of puzzles” for Steve about his brother’s murder, he said. “I was given this mission. I can’t really let go of it.”
There can be no closure for Steve, no repayment for decades of pain and loss. But there can justice for Scott Johnson, three decades after he should have received it. And that will have to be enough. Steve can live with that.
Jordan Michael Smith has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. His reporting on Australian crime and history has appeared in the Washington Post and HuffPost.’.
Siddhartha Mahanta is a features editor at Business Insider.
Samantha Lee is the senior graphics editor for Business Insider.
Hollis Johnson is the senior photo editor at Business Insider.
Skye Gould is the design director for Business Insider.
Daphne Barile is a freelance researcher.