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Cambridge man seeks justice for brother killed 30 years ago in Australia

Steve Johnson poses for a portrait at his home in Cambridge. Johnson's brother, Scott, was killed in a gay hate crime in Australia 30 years ago. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — On an early summer day in Australia 30 years ago, an American mathematician studying for his doctorate at Australian National University fell 140 feet to his death from a seaside cliff near Sydney. Police quickly concluded the victim, Scott Johnson, 27, killed himself.

But his older brother, Steve, a tech entrepreneur and longtime Cambridge resident, rejected the findings, and now so do Australian investigators. In 2017, a coroner concluded the death of Scott Johnson, who was gay, was a hate crime and, in December, police announced a reward of 1 million Australian dollars for information leading to a conviction. No one has ever been charged for his death.

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The mere existence of the reward is an extraordinary gesture by the New South Wales government and largely the product of Steve Johnson’s single-minded quest over three decades to learn what happened to his brother, who had moved to Australia to live with his partner, police said.

In pushing for answers, Steve Johnson put a spotlight on what one parliamentary leader called a “shameful period” in New South Wales during the 1980s and 1990s when gay men were attacked for sport while police looked the other way.

“Through his sheer persistence in finding justice for Scott, he’s managed to force the police and the political leaders to confront a very sad period in Sydney,” said Penny Sharpe, deputy leader of the Labor Party in New South Wales and a member of the Legislative Council. “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.”

In September, the Parliament in New South Wales launched an inquiry examining how police handled gay and transgender hate crimes between 1970 and 2010. The same month the New South Wales Police Force formed Strike Force Welsford to reexamine Scott Johnson’s case, said Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans, who is leading the investigation.

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“Without Steve this probably wouldn’t have moved forward to where it is today,” Yeomans said in a phone interview. “He’s been very forceful in moving this forward.”

Steve Johnson poses for a portrait at his home in Cambridge.Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

In interviews with the Globe, Steve Johnson, 60, who lives near Harvard Square, said he is driven by a desire to get justice for his brother, who studied at California Institute of Technology and University of Cambridge and was on the cusp of completing his doctoral thesis when he died.

“I’m told back in 1988, ‘Your brother jumped, man. Really sorry. That’s what gay people do,’ ” he said. “They didn’t tell me there was all this violence and mayhem going on where all these gangs targeted gays.”

Steve Johnson said it was years before he learned about such attacks. When Scott Johnson died in 1988, the AIDS epidemic was beginning to unfold and consensual sex between men had only been legal in New South Wales for four years.

“I didn’t ask for this mission. I think this is something any brother would do especially if they could afford to do it for this long,” said Steve Johnson, who amassed a fortune in 1996 when a technology company he co-founded was sold to AOL for $100 million. He is a senior fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, writing a book about the Internet.

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“Now I feel like I’m representing not just Scott but the other victims as well, even the gay community that is benefiting from the attention that this case has created toward the inequality of police protection and delivery of justice in that country,” Johnson said.

A report published last year by the New South Wales Police Force concluded the department and Australian society at large ignored gay hate crime between 1976 and 2000. A task force reviewed the deaths of 86 men who may have been targeted for being gay and found evidence of bias or suspected bias in 27 fatalities. The report said 63 cases were solved, resulting in charges against 96 defendants.

Garry Wotherspoon, a historian in Australia who focuses on Sydney, said in an e-mail that up to 20 gay hate attacks occurred daily during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but most weren’t reported or investigated because of “unsympathetic elements of the police and judiciary.”

Yeomans, the police investigator, said his team is serious about the new investigation into Johnson’s death.

“The thing we’re looking for is justice for Scott and the answers for Steve and his family,” he said.

‘A brilliant mathematician’

Scott Johnson was born in 1961, the youngest of three children who grew up in the Los Angeles area. The family was poor and moved often, and as a result, Steve Johnson said, he became particularly close with his brother, an “effortless thinker” who loved to hike.

In 1983, Scott Johnson moved to England to study mathematics at the University of Cambridge, where he met Michael Noone, a musicologist from Sydney. The men fell in love, and three years later Scott Johnson left a doctoral program at the University of California Berkeley to join Noone in Canberra, Australia’s capital.

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Scott Johnson was modest and shy, but his intelligence was evident.

Scott Johnson, pictured in August of 1988, in Mt. Monadnock, NH. Thirty years ago, Scott Johnson, 27, died after falling off a cliff on Australia. His death was ruled a suicide but his brother, Steve, never believed it. Last month, authorities ruled Scott's death a homicide and said he was targeted because he was gay.Family handout

“He was a brilliant mathematician,” said Richard Zeckhauser, economics professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who collaborated with Scott Johnson on three papers.

“In my lifetime, I do not expect to meet another individual possessed of Scott’s brilliance and quiet modesty,” Zeckhauser wrote in a 1995 letter shared recently with the Globe.

The last person known to have talked to Scott Johnson was his doctoral adviser, Ross Street, a mathematics professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. They spoke by phone at about 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 8, 1988 when Scott Johnson updated Street on his progress with a mathematics problem for his thesis and made plans to meet the following week, according to a 2017 report by Magistrate Michael Barnes, then state coroner for New South Wales.

“I confirmed that he had enough already for his degree. He was looking forward to telling me of his new ideas,” Street wrote in a hand-written eulogy honoring Scott Johnson.

Two days after they spoke, a 13-year-old boy spear-fishing with his father and another man found Johnson’s naked body at the base of a cliff in Manly, a Sydney suburb, Barnes’s report said.

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His shoes and folded clothing were found on top of the cliff, the report said, with some personal items including a watch, ATM card, student travel card with his name on it, bus ticket, and 10-dollar note.

At the time, Noone was in Melbourne to interview for a fellowship, Barnes’s report said. Now chairman of the Music Department at Boston College, Noone declined to comment in an e-mail.

After learning of the death, Steve Johnson said, he flew to Australia, where police told him his brother jumped from a spot where people were known to commit suicide. An inquest held in March 1989 reached the same conclusion of suicide, records show. An autopsy found Scott Johnson died of multiple injuries sustained in a fall.

Scott Johnson’s family never believed he committed suicide.

“It was Scott. Come on,” said his older sister, Terry, 61, who lives in Lake Forest, Calif. “There’s no way.”

Bringing attention to hate crimes

In 2005, Steve Johnson said he discovered a possible explanation for what happened to his brother. Noone mailed him media reports about a police investigation dubbed Operation Taradale that looked into cases from the 1980s in which gay men had either died or disappeared after visiting sea cliff areas in Sydney. The spots were called beats, and gay men gathered there for consensual sex.

After learning about the cases, Johnson returned to Australia to plead with police for a new investigation. He hired a private investigator and enlisted the help of the detective who conducted Operation Taradale.

Johnson got Saul Schapiro, his longtime lawyer, and Christopher Grace, a business partner, to help.

“It was and continues to be very moving. You could see how this really touches him to the quick,” said Schapiro, 73, who lives in Newton. “It’s hard to imagine if you believe your brother suffered this fate and the police refused to investigate.”

Scott Johnson’s case started to gain attention. A second inquest was held and then in 2013 the popular television program “Australian Story” broadcast a report about his death. Police offered 100,000 Australian dollars for information about the case.

In 2016, a third inquest began. Witnesses testified over 13 days in December 2016 and June 2017.

Martha Coakley, the state’s former attorney general who now works for Foley Hoag LLP, said she traveled to Australia twice for the inquest.

“I’ve been so impressed with Steve’s decision to getting to the truth on this,” she said. “It’s been an emotional journey. I think he feels at this stage that we reached a place that we may see some results.”

Steve Johnson on the cliff face at Fairy Bower, overlooking the spot where the body of his brother, Scott Johnson, was found, in Sydney on Dec. 17, 2016. Matthew Abbott/The New York Times

Among the witnesses were men who frequented the spot where Scott Johnson’s body was found. They described it as a place where gay men met, records show, and some witnesses testified about reports of men being beaten or stabbed there in the 1980s.

Also testifying were gang members who admitted to attacking gay men in the 1980s near the spot where Scott Johnson was found dead. The gang members are not identified by name in Barnes’s report, but one witness described an attack on an American gay man in mid-December 1988.

“He said they bashed him and he got up and got away,” Barnes wrote.

Another witness, who was not identified, testified that he had pleaded guilty and was punished in 1989 for attacking gay men three years earlier. Steve Johnson said the attacks occurred near the site where his brother died and the witness was free and awaiting trial when Scott Johnson’s body was found.

Testimony from the same witness revealed some officers in New South Wales formed questionable alliances. He said two detectives coerced him into confessing to the 1986 attacks on gay men, but under further questioning, he revealed both officers were invited to his wedding a few years later.

The officers later resigned during an unrelated corruption investigation and went to jail, according to Australian news reports.

Barnes stopped short, however, of connecting the second witness to Scott Johnson’s death, writing there was “no reliable evidence” to make that link.

Michael Atkinson, who works for ACON, a health advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people in New South Wales, said the Scott Johnson case has given gay men and their families a chance to tell their stories.

The case, he said in an e-mail, has played “a SIGNIFICANT role in bringing attention and supporting community dialogue around historic gay and transgender hate crimes” in New South Wales.

Steve Johnson said he has traveled to Australia 20 times. When he visits the cliff where his brother lost his life, the same thought crosses his mind.

“I’ve never returned to the spot without imagining Scott’s final moments which must have been terror,” he said. “He was there on a day when he was probably celebrating finishing his PhD after two years of work and he ended up facing a gang of men who ended up killing him.”


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.