Out in the World: Tech entrepreneur's quest to solve his gay brother's killing featured in Hulu docuseries

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Monday September 11, 2023
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American Steve Johnson, left, spent 34 years seeking the truth and justice for the murder of his gay brother, mathematician Scott Johnson, in Australia. The brothers' story is being told in a four-part docuseries, "Never Let Him Go," now airing on Hulu. Photo: Courtesy Steve Johnson
American Steve Johnson, left, spent 34 years seeking the truth and justice for the murder of his gay brother, mathematician Scott Johnson, in Australia. The brothers' story is being told in a four-part docuseries, "Never Let Him Go," now airing on Hulu. Photo: Courtesy Steve Johnson

In December 1988, Steve Johnson received a phone call no one wanted to get.

His beloved younger brother, Scott Johnson, 27, was found at the bottom of a crag where the South Pacific Ocean splashes up against the sharp rocks in Manly, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. He was naked and his body was badly bruised and beaten, possibly from the fall, Australian authorities determined.

The Manly Police Department, which is a part of the New South Wales police force, and the coroner quickly ruled Scott Johnson's death a suicide and closed the case.

Steve Johnson, a former vice president at America Online, did not buy it. Scott Johnson, who briefly lived in Oakland while working on his Ph.D. in mathematics at UC Berkeley, had too much to live for. He had a 6-month-old niece he hadn't met. He was about to receive his doctoral degree from a university in Australia and jobs awaited. He was in love with his partner of five years, Australian Michael Noone, who was the reason why he was in Australia and about to get his residency card.

"I knew that Scott wouldn't have picked that particular time," Steve Johnson told the Bay Area Reporter about his brother and the accounts of his contemplating suicide at different periods in his life. "Suicide is always possible, but at that particular time, he had everything to live for. He wouldn't have left without giving me a clue."

Steve Johnson flew to Australia to find answers. Instead, he met a blue wall of silence from the New South Wales Police Department. The more he asked questions, the more the police dug in their heels claiming Scott Johnson's death was a suicide. Mystified, Steve Johnson continued to push to find out what happened to his brother.

"Unfortunately, the police made it necessary," Steve Johnson told the B.A.R. about his 35-year battle seeking justice for his brother detailed in a new four-part docuseries. "I didn't really have any choice."

The show, "Never Let Him Go," is now airing on Hulu.

The B.A.R. spoke with Steve Johnson on a video call from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts August 28.

The docuseries tells Scott Johnson's story and chronicles Steve Johnson's three-and-a-half-decade search for answers and justice. Interviews with family show the gut-wrenching heartache and the haunting mystery of Scott Johnson's death that hung over them even as Steve Johnson became a successful technology entrepreneur, and he and his wife, Rosemarie Johnson, had three children. The series interviews investigative journalist Daniel Glick, hired by Steve Johnson to dig for information, and families of other victims of hate crimes still searching for answers about their loved ones.

Steve Johnson's quest for answers uncovered Sydney's ugly homophobic history of hate crimes perpetrated by youth gangs against gay men and transgender people in the late 1980s. The gangs were known for going out "poofter bashing," which ended in at least 88 known cases of gay men being killed: often falling off cliffs to their deaths in Manly, Bondi Beach, and other popular cruising areas (gay beats) like Scott Johnson did. A few cases have been solved — such as Ross Warren, 25, a TV news anchor who disappeared in 1989, never to be found, and three teenagers were convicted of murdering a Thai man who had a similar fate to Scott Johnson in 1990, reported the New York Times — but many remain unsolved. Steve Johnson's push to resolve the conflict in his heart and mind, and what NSW police wanted him to believe about what happened to his brother, is also bringing light to other unsolved hate crime victims and changing life for Sydney's LGBTQ community.

In 2022, the Special Commission of Inquiryinto LGBTQI hate crimes was established by the NSW parliament to conduct a historic review of 40 years of unsolved gay and transgender hate crimes from 1970 to 2010. A final report is due to NSW Governor Margaret Joan Beazley December 15.

NSW police now have a unit that is actively and more sensitively investigating unsolved crimes of gay and transgender victims. NSW authorities have put up a $1 million reward for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators of these killings.

"Scott became emblematic of this epidemic of violence that the police had done nothing about or too little about," said Steve Johnson, who went through three inquests and put up a $2 million reward for information in 2020. The first inquest in 1989 to overturn the NSW police and coroner's determination of death as a suicide failed, but Steve Johnson succeeded in 2012, which reopened the case for investigation. Due to unsatisfactory results, another inquest was opened in 2017 with new NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller. Fuller placed Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans, who is a part of the NSW Police Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad, on Scott Johnson's case and the other unsolved cases that same year.

A break in the case came in 2020 when a woman named Helen White came forward. Her ex-husband, Scott White, now 52, was arrested for the murder of Scott Johnson. Justice Robert Beech-Jones sentenced White to nine years in prison June 8, reported CBS News. The sentence on a manslaughter conviction was the result of a plea deal. It is unclear if Helen White will collect the reward money.

"I'm very motivated to help these other families," Steve Johnson said. "Help the country get the change that is needed, but also these other families getting answers like I did."

A brilliant mind

Steve and Scott Johnson, along with their older sister Terry Johnson, were raised by their single mother in Southern California. Their father left and started a new family in Colorado, where their younger half-sister Rebecca Johnson was born and raised.

The two boys were best friends and gifted in mathematics, especially Scott Johnson, who was two years younger than Steve Johnson.

"My family always used to say when we were kids, 'He's the smart one in the family,'" Steve Johnson said.

In the early 1980s, the brothers became the first in their family to go to college. Steve Johnson graduated from the University of Southern California. Scott Johnson graduated from Caltech. Steve Johnson went to Harvard University for graduate school. Scott Johnson went to Cambridge University in England for a year, before starting graduate school at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1984.

Cambridge University is where Scott Johnson met and fell in love with Noone, a Ph.D. student in music from Australia. The couple continued their relationship and studies after Scott Johnson returned to America. Scott Johnson stayed with his brother and his wife and came out to them before heading off to Berkeley.

Steve Johnson said that his brother loved the San Francisco Bay Area and going to UC Berkeley, but he missed Noone. Noone visited Scott Johnson in Oakland, where he lived, in May and June of 1985. Scott Johnson decided to put his graduate studies on hold. He left the Bay Area in August 1985, attending his brother and Rosemarie's wedding that month before flying back to England. He joined Noone at Cambridge University as he finished his Ph.D.

Scott Johnson returned to America in the spring of 1986 and lived with Steve and Rosemarie Johnson for six weeks in Cambridge, outside of Boston, Massachusetts, while he waited for his student visa for Australia to arrive. In May 1986, Scott Johnson moved to Canberra where Noone became a professor of music.

Scott Johnson resumed his work toward earning his Ph.D. for the next two and a half years at the Australian National University in Canberra. He found a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney who was in his area of mathematics, category theory, to be his adviser. Scott Johnson commuted to Sydney once a week to meet with his adviser and stayed with Noone's family until that fateful night when White punched him and he fell off the cliff in Manly, December 8, 1988. His naked body was found by a fisherman two days later.


Through nearly three and a half decades Steve Johnson said that he and his family were challenged by the NSW Police Department. The U.S. Embassy in Canberra was contacted by the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) on Steve Johnson's behalf. But there was no new evidence, and the NSW police could not be persuaded to consider that their original investigation might have been flawed.

"I was bewildered why the police would hide this information from me," Steve Johnson said.

Steve Johnson said that he came to learn that "the police had routinely rebuffed families, usually by guilting them into thinking that they didn't understand their gay son and shaking their heads the way they did to me."

It wasn't only the police, he added, "Scott's friends didn't tell me. His boyfriend didn't tell me.

"All I could imagine was that no one wanted to be involved in an investigation," he said. "It was tough enough being gay in the 1980s in Sydney, but to be part of a news story, it made things uncomfortable."

At the third inquest in 2017, Noone spoke publicly about Scott Johnson's death and their relationship for the first time in 29 years. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Noone explained Scott Johnson's guilt for his infidelities in their relationship in San Francisco and Sydney and thoughts of suicide for not living up to his high standards. He added that he didn't want the police to write off Scott Johnson because he was gay, so he hesitated to disclose this information or thoughts of suicide to them.

Steve Johnson didn't want to comment about Noone's comments.

The B.A.R. reached out to Noone, who is the chair and a professor of Boston College's Music Department, but did not receive a comment.

Creating change

"Scott and I were pretty idealistic young men in our 20s," Steve Johnson said. "We always wanted to change the world for the better."

"I think Scott can perhaps take some solace in the fact that there's this special commission that may result in some change, some reform in the New South Wales Police in the way that gay people are treated and protected in Australia," he said.

In 2016, members of the NSW parliament and the police department apologized to the '78ers, referencing the 70 original Sydney Pride participants who were beaten and arrested in Sydney's first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade that drew an estimated 2,000 marchers out onto the Harbor City's streets June 24, 1978, the B.A.R. previously reported. The event is known as Australia's Stonewall rebellion.

NSW decriminalized gay sex in 1984, but anti-gay attitudes did not immediately shift with the new law.

Fuller apologized to Steve Johnson and his family and other victims' families after White's arrest.

"He apologized to me that it had taken me and my family this long and he apologized to the other victims," Steve Johnson said. "I wish that indicated a change in the New South Wales Police."

The New South Wales Police Department did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Steve Johnson is proud of the docuseries, which was produced by ABC News Studios, Show of Force, and Blackfella Films for Hulu.

"I think this documentary is going to add some momentum behind the change that's starting to take place," he said. "I can't wait for it to be seen in Australia."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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