In 1988, the body of 27-year-old Scott Johnson was found at the base of a cliff in Sydney, Australia. His death was ruled a suicide, but after the pieces didn’t add up, his family pushed for another explanation. Now, 30 years, and three inquests later, a judge has found that Johnson did not, in fact, take his own life, but was the victim of a gay hate crime.
On Thursday, Magistrate Michael Barnes, the state coroner, ruled that Johnson “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.”
Johnson, an openly gay American, was working toward his Ph.D. in math at the Australian National University when his body was found near a cliff at North Head. According to the Guardian, that spot was known as a meeting place for men looking to have sex with other men.
The first inquest into Johnson’s death was hastily ruled a suicide; a conclusion reached in just three months after no witnesses came forward. It also elided North Head’s reputation as a place where gay men met, as well as information later revealed that gangs repeatedly attacked gay men in the same area throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
In 2012, Johnson’s family had the case reopened after it was discovered that three young men who had died in cliff falls in the ’80s had been targeted by such gangs. The suicide ruling was overturned, and it was recommended that police reinvestigate.
“The inadequacy of the original investigation, the passage of time since the incident and the unreliability of many of the witnesses has made establishing the precise facts more difficult,” Barnes found. “Nonetheless, I am persuaded to the requisite standard that Scott died as a result of a gay-hate attack. There is however, insufficient reliable evidence to identify the perpetrators.”
Johnson’s brother, Steve, attended the Sydney hearing, and told CBS News that he wants police to bring the killers to justice. “We know now that Scott was killed and not only that, it was likely a gay hate gang that met him at North Head,” he said. “The inquest produced many leads toward possible perpetrators that should still be pursued.”
Barnes called Johnson’s family’s commitment to learning the truth “exhaustively examined is laudable.”
In 2013, the police in New South Wales—which includes Sydney—opened a review of the deaths of 88 men between 1976 and 2000 to assess whether they should be reclassified as hate crimes.