Murder Paper Chase

Deadly city for gay men in the 80’s & 90’s: pic Mark Ehr

Here we go again: NSW Police are again going to trawl through the files relating to the many murders and bashings of gay men that took place in Sydney during the 1980s. But is this latest review going to find the truth, or has it been deliberately designed to fail?

the stirrer has written about these murders several times before:

Now, under pressure from Scott Johnson’s family, the coroners office, the media, and two documentaries currently in preparation, comes a new initiative. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

“Whether there was a gay-hate motive involved is a question a NSW Police taskforce is seeking to answer with a review of into 88 deaths dating to the 1970s.

pic: Dave Conner

A team of eight detectives attached to Operation Parrabell are “meticulously reviewing” every archived document in these cases in a bid to decide whether gay hatred motivated the victim’s death. The team will go through the files looking for the 10 bias-indicators used by the FBI to determine if a case meets the FBI definition of a gay hate crime. But is this an appropriate response?

There are no plans to actually re-investigate any of the crimes, which has raised questions in many people’s minds as to whether this is anything more than window-dressing. What are these FBI criteria, and will they help the police to identify gay-hate crimes they may previously have missed? Will justice for the victims be brought any closer?

The FBI bias criteria are used in USA for national monitoring of organised and developing hate groups who threaten national security. They are not designed as an aid to operational police work, i.e., identifying and investigating specific cases and casting the net wide enough to see the patterns of repeat offenders.

The FBI in their training says these criteria must be used “prudently”. “Hate crime” is a formal national classification where solved cases often have a harsher court penalty imposed, so have a strict onus of proof. Many countries, such as the UK, do not use the narrow FBI criteria in operational policing, but adopt a much less stringent test, as the NSW Police did for a long time. Why are they now abandoning their previous practice?

Cliffs at The Gap, Sydney, pic by monztermash

Former co-ordinator of NSW Police Gay & Lesbian Liaison (1990-2002), Police Gay/Lesbian Client Consultant Sue Thompson, while welcoming the review, worries that using the FBI bias indicators could potentially obscure hate crimes rather than reveal them.

History proved to us repeatedly in the 90s that unless police could recognise what a possible gay hate crime looked like they would continue to ignore them, call them something else, not understand them, miss the M.O., miss the motive, have no idea who the offender might be and not solve them.

She suggests that the review requires a more open-minded approach. The Australian Institute of Criminology and the NSW police criteria for identifying possible gay hate crime, developed in the 1990s, help police to develop this “eyes wide open” style of investigation. They encourage investigators to look beyond obvious and familiar motives such as robbery. This has obvious advantages over the FBI approach.

If police can recognise something as a POSSIBLE gay hate murder because of certain criteria this is an aid to their investigation. It suggests and flags to police to look wider for motive & offender, not to miss what might have been really happening, eg from an actual case – not to think a murder was only robbery related just because the victim’s wallet was stolen and ignoring the repeated stab wounds in the victim’s mouth (hate message = I hate gay men, gay men have oral sex, so kill them by stabbing them in the mouth). Miss the true motive and you too easily miss the offender. Simple truth.

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) and Sue Thompson for NSW Police did extensive research into gay hate murders in the 90s. Using independent National Homicide Monitoring Program case files they identified and verified 37 “possible gay hate related homicides” in NSW from 1989 – 199 (see links at the foot of this post).

They conservatively excluded 7 other possible cases as having insufficient independent data on the case files for formal research. They studied modus operandi, location, victim characteristics and offender profiles. That research went through rigorous independent academic review before publication and was highly respected.

Unless the aim is simply to exonerate themselves yet again, it remains difficult to see why the police have chosen this course of action.

Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson

The Justice for Scott Johnston (see below) campaign has also responded cautiously to the use of the FBI criteria, hoping the police would do more than just look at files.

We are encouraged the NSWPF are reviewing these deaths that occurred during the 1980s and 90s.  We hope that Parrabell pays less attention to assessing deaths by ‘gay hate’ criteria and more to whether justice was done in investigating the victim’s death.  We would be elated to see the 30 or more unsolved cases vigorously investigated together as a series of related potential crimes.  Any answers will benefit families, and some of these cases may still be solved.  We will be eagerly following Parrabell as it conducts its review.

The story of Scott Johnson’s death and the investigation is ongoing. The official notice of the unprecedented third inquest asks anyone who may have any information to contact the coroner.

The inquest into the death of Scott JOHNSON is scheduled later in 2016. The NSW State Coroner asks that any person who may have information relating to the death of Scott Johnson at North Head, Sydney in December 1988 that may be of assistance to the Coroner to please call 02 8584 7705 and a member of the team assisting the Coroner will be in contact with them.

Also playing into the situation are two documentaries: one commissioned by SBS, and the independent documentary Killing Off The Beat, by independent journalist Serkhan Ozturk.

The hope of the community is that all this activity will lead to proper on the ground investigations, arrests and convictions, though at this late date the hope must be slim. But the NSW police need to swallow their pride and do what they can to atone for their past callous indifference to the fate of so many.

Simply reviewing the files to see if they fit a set of criteria which seem, on the face of it, to be inappropriate for the task at hand, does not give one a great deal of hope, or confidence.


Click on the links to  read.

A paper was presented at the Hate Crime Conference at the University of Sydney in December 1999, entitled Comparison between Gay-Related Homicides of Men and Other Male Homicides in New South Wales 1989 – 1999, by Jenny Mouzos & Sue Thompson, which discusses, among other things, how to identify a gay-hate crime.

(For the time-poor, here’s a short summary which was published by the Australian Institute of Criminology: Current Trends & Issues In Crime & Criminal Justice No.155. Gay Related Homicides: An Overview of Major Findings in NSW)

An excellent overview of this horrid and shameful history Sydney’s shame, by Rick Fenely

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)