Australian charged over notorious 1980s hate crime killing of gay American

SYDNEY (AFP, NYTIMES) - More than 30 years after American Scott Johnson was killed in a suspected gay hate crime in Australia, police said on Tuesday (May 12) they had arrested and charged a man with his murder.

Detectives arrested the 49-year-old in the leafy Sydney suburb of Lane Cove on Tuesday. The suspect is due to appear in a local Sydney court on Wednesday (May 13).

The breakthrough in the cold case comes two months after the victim's family doubled a police reward in the case to A$2 million (US$1.83 million).

The 27-year-old Johnson's naked body was found at the base of a cliff in the Sydney suburb of Manly in December 1988.

The killing of Mr Johnson drew attention to a rash of homophobia-driven crimes in the 1980s and '90s in which gay men were targeted by gangs of young people, who sometimes forced them off cliffs to their deaths.

Police at the time ruled his death a suicide, but a coroner found in 2017 that Mr Johnson had been killed in a hate crime, saying gangs of men roamed Sydney at the time searching for gay men to attack.

In 2018, police announced an A$1 million reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, which was doubled when Mr Johnson's brother, Steve, matched the amount in March.

Steve, who had long pushed police to investigate his brother's death, said it was "remarkable" the alleged killer had been apprehended almost 32 years later.

"This is a very emotional day. Emotional for me, emotional for my family who... love Scott dearly," he said in a video statement.

"It's emotional, I'm sure, for the gay community for whom Scott had come to symbolise the many dozens of other gay men who lost their lives in the 1980s and '90s in a world full of anti-gay prejudice and hatred," he said.

After Tuesday's arrest in Lane Cove, detectives began searches of a nearby home and the site where Mr Johnson's body was discovered.

Mr Mick Fuller, the police commissioner of New South Wales, said that he had personally notified Steve, who lives in the United States, 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 honour be part of his fight for justice," Mr Fuller said.

"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," the commissioner added, "we wouldn't be where we are today."

"I haven't stopped crying for five days," Steve said. "Today's been simply an emotional roller coaster of joy, sadness, relief."

His brother, he added, would be grateful that the family did not give up on finding out what happened in his last hours.

In 2018, New South Wales police acknowledged that at least 27 murders between the 1970s and 2000 were homophobic hate crimes, admitting the force had played a part in marginalising the LGBT community and enabling society's "acceptance of shocking violence directed at gay men" during the period.

"It is clear and beyond question that levels of violence inflicted upon gay men in particular were elevated, extreme and often brutal," police said at the time.

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