Scott Johnson: The Fix Is In

Will it be an inquest or a Kangaroo Court? Meanwhile Skippy ponders life after the NSW Police……….

The NSW Coroner has granted an almost unprecedented third inquest into the death of Scott Johnson, but campaigners worry that there will still be no proper investigation: and in any event, a fix may already have been put in place.

NSW Police continue to fight tooth and nail. In the hours leading to the Coroner’s hearing, they let it be known they were vehemently opposed to reopening the case, citing a lack of manpower and what is in their eyes the unassailable conclusion that Scott’s death was a suicide.

However, for as yet unexplained reasons, their objections melted away as the inquest opened. They did place on record their conviction that a new inquest would once again reach a verdict of suicide. Nothing like prejudging the outcome of a case you yourselves are going to reinvestigate, is there?

What followed next was an astonishing and unprecedented attack by the head of the unsolved crimes squad on the Johnson family and former police minister Mike Gallacher, on national television. Speaking with Emma Alberici, DCI Pamela Young vented her fury and frustration that her investigation, her conclusions, and her judgement were being questioned by mere mortals. She protested she had thousands more unsolved cases to deal with – why was this one so special?

Because Scott Johnson was a rich American with lots of political pull. It was most improper, she fumed. She also dismissed suggestions that counsel for the family had provided the names of 50 new possible sources of information, suggesting they’d cribbed them from her own report.

The family shot back

Steve Johnson, who has previously accused Inspector Young of open hostility to the family, said: “The ABC should be commended for exposing DCI Pam Young as anything but an impartial investigator interested in the pursuit of truth in my brother’s case.

“Her suggestion that I exercised undue influence over a member of this state is hallucinatory. It came to the minister’s attention — and the ABC’s — because police ignored Scott’s case for 26 years with the same determination that DCI Young revealed tonight.”

Senior counsel John Aegis, representing the Johnson family, immediately wrote to the Police Commissioner of NSW, calling for DCI Young to be replaced with someone more senior, reported Emma Alberici.

She said they’ve also asked for a formal apology from Police for DCI Young’s comments giving her opinion on the evidence and for her to retract her statements.

Aegis has little time for the police. According to numerous reports he was scathing at the inquest: here’s the Sydney Morning Herald.

The inquest could question “no fewer than 50 people of interest” and investigate “five gangs or loose groups” who were known to have been bashing gay men in the same area at the time Mr Johnson, a 27-year-old maths genius and PhD student, fell from the cliff near Blue Fish Point, counsel assisting the Johnson family, John Agius, SC, told the court.

Mr Agius told the court  it was “beyond comprehension” that Chief Inspector Young’s report had devoted a great deal of time to the suicide theory when there was not a “skerrick of evidence” to support it and that this possibility had been “put to bed”.

He objected to police having any say in the scope of the inquest, saying the family had no confidence in their position – and claimed that police were opposing a third inquest only last week.

“I don’t know who has fallen off their horse since last week,” Mr Agius said.

The family responded to Young’s attack on their Facebook page, Justice for Scott Johnson:

Just as Coroner Barnes heroically called for an inquest to look carefully at the circumstances of Scott’s death in light of the ongoing investigation, the officer in charge Detective Inspector Pamela Young astonishingly went on national TV to reveal her indignation and lack of objectivity in this investigation. The publicity from yesterday’s historic decision by Coroner Barnes has already resulted in people coming forward with information. Where should we direct the public when it is clear we can’t trust the investigators? What will be done about Officer Pam Young’s unprofessional tirade? She has stopped the investigation at the very moment we stood the best chance of lighting a fire under the people who may know what happened to Scott.

The makers of the upcoming documentary, Killing Off The Beat, spoke with Scott’s brother, Steve Johnson, who had flown in from America for the coroner’s decision. Steve told them he and his family felt vindicated by the Coroner’s move to re-investigate his brother’s death.

“I have no idea [why police have been so reluctant to investigate]. You are right that some of the original police officers are high ranking police officers today. We have no idea why it’s been so difficult for the police to get on board and really try and solve the case,” he said.

The other target of Young’s extraordinary tirade, former police minister Mike Gallacher, defended himself robustly, again to Emma Alberici on Lateline. He refuted Young’s assertions that he had exerted undue influence, or forced the police to investigate Scotts case.

MIKE GALLACHER: There is documentation available to the police and an examination of their records would reveal that their own files show that such an inquiry was already underway before I met the Johnsons………… I can assure you: at no stage did I make any demands upon anyone to force an inquiry upon the NSW Police Force. It was a request from the Johnsons that an opportunity to sit down with the police face-to-face in my presence, to actually look at the evidence.

Further, he said it was the police themselves that had arranged his meeting with the Johnson family.

MIKE GALLACHER: I met the Johnson family in early 2013, following a request from them to meet me. I understand that they were given advice by Police Media to make contact with my office to meet myself and my staff.

Clearly, NSW police are desperate to keep the lid on and don’t mind who they smear in order to do so. This is hardly suprising. According to their own records – on which Young relied to reach her conclusions – there were no other gay bashings in the Manly area, and few known unsolved gay murders in Sydney. Yet only a little research uncovers a horrendous climate of gay bashings and murders stretching from the 1960s into the 2000s.

[A big thank you to SMH journo Rick Feneley. He’s also done most of the reporting on Scott Johnson’s and other cases, and I’ve quoted him extensively. You can see his work here.]

We also know that the police could barely be bothered to acknowledge, let alone investigate the vast majority of these crimes. To cite but one example, Paul Wright wrote on Facebook:

My partner and I were assaulted on the cliffs between Bondi and Tamarama in the eighties. I ended up in hospital but my partner made a statement to Maroubra police at the time. I have since contacted police when these stories make the news again but I’ve been told that my partner’s statement could not be found and was probably lost when they converted their records from microfilm to computer.

Paul’s is not the only story of the erasure of police records: the loss of records of a 1989 gay bashing, which surfaced in January this year, has done nothing to improve confidence in NSW police integrity when it comes to bringing the perpetrators of gay hate crimes to justice.

We know cops were out there gay bashing during these years, at the same time as the young gangs of queerbashers. We know police have destroyed documentation to cover this up – which is why DCI Young can say with her hand on what passes for her heart that she’s investigated and found nothing. Of course she hasn’t found anything. Her predecessors either never put it in the files in the first place, or made sure it got shredded before people could ask too many questions.

This is also why the police remain wilfully blind to the catalogue of persecution, bashings and murders that terrorised Sydney for decades. If it’s not on file, it didn’t happen. If it did happen, but it’s not on file, it raises the distinctly uncomfortable probability that police officers, some now serving, some probably quite senior by now, never properly investigated, never made any reports, and conveniently lost or erased any embarrassing reports when others came looking for them.

The first gay and lesbian client consultant to NSW Police, Sue Thompson, originally estimated that 46 gay men were murdered in NSW in the ten years from 1989 to 1999 alone. Now she thinks there may be many more. This week she wrote on Facebook.

Sue Thompson I could write an historical essay about why it has always been essential for Police Ministers to intervene in some matters to ensure that the right thing is done, especially on issues around homosexuality. If not for successive Police Ministers (Labour, Liberal and National Party) since 1985 intervening to force the Police Service/Force to take anti gay violence & murders seriously & treat victims professionally, then we would still be in the dark ages. There would still be an average 4 gay hate murders committed every year in NSW, most would be committed by offenders under the age of 25, often teenagers. Most hate violence would never be reported for fear of Police response and hostility. Most victims would be silent and invisible. Gay hate murders in convenient locations like cliff tops would be seen only as suicides. Some bashers would get away with their violent attacks until they eventually turn into murderers and Police would never have even noticed the spiral and where it was heading. I thank those successive Ministers including Mike Gallagher for standing up for what is right and forcing change, despite intense opposition. To quote young girl, Malala, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard”.

Sadly, since Sue’s day the NSW Gay & Lesbian Liaison officers have declined to become little more that a PR exercise designed to make NSW Police look like they care about he LGBTI community.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, the current police minister Troy Grant will do. Does he have the stomach to confront the police and make them face up to their own shortcomings? The omens are not good. He is a former policeman himself, and served under the current NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione. He is on record as saying that he and “Skippy” get on well. And he wants Skippy’s replacement to come from within the ranks of NSW Police when his contract expires in September.

Two of the three deputy commissioners have been in open conflict over a surveillance operation 15 years ago in which one, Catherine Burn bugged another, Nick Kaldas.

Mr Grant declined to say which the two leading candidates he favoured, but indicated he preferred an internal candidate over someone from another force, or someone from overseas.

“My preference would obviously be for [them] to come from NSW, from the stocks we have, the establishment we have there. There’s so many talented police officers within the organisation currently. But we will look at all those options when the time is right.”

It looks horribly like the fix is in. The inquest will once again decide it was suicide – the police would never have dropped their objections unless they were assured of this in advance. Meanwhile one of two insiders, who have a poisonous relationship already, will take over command of the force, with no incentive to do anything other than maintain the current posture of denial.

Unless there is an independent inquiry, preferably a Royal Commission, into the failure of the police to stop the bashings and murders, or even investigate them properly, over the four decades from 1960-2000, and unless some kind of permanent independent body to monitor the police is established, no one will be brought to justice, and nothing will stop similar things happening in future.

We cannot have the NSW Police investigating themselves. If it must be police at all, then it should be a task force from another state, such as Victoria, seconded to assist the commission of enquiry.

And if I were Troy Grant, I’d think twice or more before appointing anyone from NSW Police to replace his mate Skippy.

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)