Sydney Cliff Murders

Queer history, as we all know, can be difficult to track down. Sometimes that’s because the language we use now didn’t exist, so it’s hard to identify queer people. Sometimes it’s because people actively tried to suppress the information. And sometimes, unfortunately, its because no one was paying attention. The Sydney Cliff Murders are one such instance — even today, this doesn’t even have a half-assed Wikipedia page. (Yet. I’m betting that will change after this though. Fingers crossed anyways.)

The Sydney Cliff murders were a string of murders from the 80’s through the 90’s against gay men in the of Sydney, Australia which may have had as many as 90 victims — primarily in Marks Park at the top of the Bondi Beach cliffs, which was a popular cruising spot for gay men, but also in some other areas that were popular “gay beats”. The police hardly ever investigated the crime scenes, just took a cursory glances and declared them suicides or accidents. Those weren’t totally off-the-wall or impossible suggestions, but let’s be honest: the police would have actually investigated them anyways if it weren’t for who the victims were and where the victims were. According to retired High Court justice Michael Kirby, the police viewed gay men as low level criminals (even though sodomy was decriminalized there in 1984) and thought that homosexuals should pretty much expect to be hurt or killed.

But it wasn’t a rash of suicides plaguing the gay community of Sydney. It was murder. And, no, it wasn’t a serial killer on the loose or anything nearly that dramatic — it was groups of violent, homophonic teenagers who knew that crimes against gay men would never be taken seriously by the police. For the most part they were right — only a handful were arrested for the murders specifically, though a number were arrested for other crimes and then later were discovered to have been involved in a murder at Bondi Beach. “Poofter bashing,” as it was called, was something of a sport.

The earliest one of these deaths that I can find is that of David Williams. He was found, naked, at the bottom of the cliffs in the area of Manly. His clothes were neatly folded at the top of the cliffs. No investigation was made, no coroner made any report about his body.

Steve and Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson was a 27 year-old American “brilliant” mathematician (some of us can do math! Not me, but….some of us!) who had graduated the University of Cambridge and moved to Sydney in 1986 to be with his partner Michael Noone. He had applied for permanent residency and had nearly completed his PhD at the Australian National University by the end of 1988, when his naked body was found at the bottom of the North Head Cliffs in Manly. His clothes were in a folded pile, with his student ID, a ten dollar bill, and his watch nestled on top of them. Police called it a suicide. Neither Michael Noone or Scott’s brother Steve believed that for a minute and made sure the police of New South Wales knew it.

On July 22, the following year, Ross Warren — a discreet but not exactly closeted television news anchor — disappeared. His car was found near Marks Park, and his keys were found in rocks at the top of the cliffs. Police reasoned he must have accidentally fallen off the cliff into the water, and on July 28 they announced they expected his body would wash up soon. It didn’t. Nevertheless, police declared that his death had been accidental, there was no foul play, and he also hadn’t faked his death. His mother Kay began writing frequently to the police, insisting they actually investigate his disappearance. Warren’s body has still never been found.

On November 23 of 1989, John Russell — a local Sydney bartender — was found dead at the bottom of the cliffs on the Bondi Beach side of Marks Park. Police investigated enough to discover he had a high concentration of alcohol in his system, and ruled he had accidentally fallen off the cliff. Not quite a month later, on December 18, Alan Boxsell was attacked by a group of teenagers in Marks Park. He managed to flee his assailants and even, surprisingly, reported the attack to the police. He identified some of the bashers. Days later on December 21, David McMahon was assaulted by a group of teenagers in almost the same place where Russell would have fallen from — one of the attackers even suggesting “Let’s throw him off where we threw the other one off.” McMahon managed to escape, and identified some of his assailants to police. Some of them were the same people identified by Boxsell. None of them were arrested due to a “lack of evidence.”

In 1990, a Thai man named Krichakorn Rattanajurathaporn was attacked with a hammer and knocked off the cliff. This one — as a nice change — was investigated and three teenagers were arrested. They would be known as the “Tamarama Three.” Despite the fact that one of those teenagers was reported saying to the police “The easiest thing with a cliff is just herding them over the edge” the police didn’t begin investigating the rash of murders.

Five months later, in December of 1990, eight boys discovered a phone number written in the toilets in Alexandria Park, and used it to lure Richard Johnson to the park after dark. There, they beat him to death. The eight boys — who would be called the “Alexandria Eight” were arrested and eventually convicted of the crime. Homicide detective Steve McCann secretly recorded conversations the boys had with each other and other inmates — they bragged about killing gay men at the cliffs at Bondi Beach. Despite this, only McCann was interested in looking into the deaths of gay men in that area. His investigation was hampered by resistance from his fellow police officers. He turned to lawyer, and official liaison between the New South Wales police and the gay community, Sue Thompson for help but even so there was only so much they could do. Through their investigation they learned that “poofter bashing” was something of a widespread sport — a gang of at least thirty teenage boys and girls, called the “Bondi Boys” frequently engaged in it as a form of initiation.

As an aside, there’s a lot of victims or possible victims here. I could not talk about them all while also talking about the police action (or lack of action, as the case may be) and keep this post to a relatively reasonable size. But I don’t want to overlook them, as so many of them have been continuously overlooked. So I am promising that there will be a follow-up post (posts?) about the victims. All 88 if I can find all of their names. I’m still making working on that list. Anyways, back to what the police were doing….

Steve Page and Sue Thompson

By 2000 — after eleven years of hearing from Kay Warren — one of her letters (which contained copies of all of her previous letters) caught the attention of the police. It was handed off to Detective Steve Page. He noticed what McCann had noticed — a lot of gay men were dying or disappearing around Marks Park. He picked up where McCann’s investigation had left off. Page was able to prove, through reenacting the scene with a dummy on December 9 2001, that John Russell was thrown from the cliff he was found at the bottom of — there was nothing accidental about his death after all. This opened the doors on many more closed “investigations” (if you can really call them that). Revisiting these cases was a major undertaking, and so it became a full-fledged project named Operation Taradale. The task force interviewed the Tamarama Three and the Alexandria Eight — all of whom denied any involvement in killing John Russell, Ross Warren, or any of the others

In 2012, at the request of Steve Johnson — now a wealthy former AOL executive — and his family, an inquest was made into the death of Scott Johnson. It was determined that the original investigation had not been thorough, and that the death should be re-investigated. As a result of this, the New South Wales police began Operation Parrabell, a review of 88 investigations into various deaths of gay men — trying to determine if the crimes should be classified as hate crimes. That list of 88 deaths is based on recommendations by Sue Thompson and criminologist Stephen Tomsen going as far back as David Warren’s death, but Parrabell met criticism — even from Sue Thompson — for their methodology. Of the 30 unsolved deaths in that list, she and Tomsen found compelling evidence of foul play in 22 cases. The Operation Parrabell task force for unsolved homicides accepted eight of those as potential anti-gay hate crimes that needed to be investigated. Those eight did not include Scott Johnson.

In 2015, another inquest into Scott Johnson’s death was made — also recommending the case be investigated again, as a homicide. In November of 2017, a third inquest formally declared that Johnson had been the victim of a hate crime. As a result, the following month a reward of one million Australian dollars was offered by the Australian government for any information leading to conviction. With no information forthcoming, the Johnson family doubled the reward in March 2020 — and in May, a man named Scott Price was finally arrested for the murder of Scott Johnson.

These cases inspired a television miniseries in Australia called Deep Water. A documentary was also made that year, to go alongside the fictionalized show, called Deep Water: The Real Story.

As of now, 22 of the Sydney cliff murders remain unsolved. A parliamentary inquiry regarding the New South Wales police’s response to hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals in Sydney between 1970 and 2010 is currently underway. We may never see justice for all of those many queer individuals who were lost in these murders, but I take some comfort in knowing that, finally, there are at least some people who are trying.

White Night Riots

As I’m sure you all know, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, there’s a lot of riots in queer history. Today, I’m going to tackle another — the White Night Riots of May 21, 1979.

I do have to start with a little backstory, so let’s rewind a bit. There’s a whole long very gay history going back to the founding of San Francisco but I’m not going to go back there (today, anyways) — suffice it to say that San Francisco was considered something of a haven for LGBTQ+ people in the United States, particularly gay men. An estimated 25% of the city’s population was LGBT. That didn’t change the laws of the country, though, and being openly gay in San Francisco still led to being arrested, losing your job, etc — it just meant there was a louder, larger community that had your back if those things happened. Which, of course, meant that there had been more than a couple mostly peaceful conflicts between the police and the queer community of San Francisco.

In 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco and opened Castro Camera, and — with political expertise and a lot of charisma — quickly became one of the leaders of the gay community of the city, which was centered in the Castro District (and I believe still is). In that position, Milk ultimately made himself very unpopular with the police — after one incident on Labor Day in 1974 where police beat dozens of gay men on Castro Street, and arrested 14 of them for “obstructing the sidewalk”, Milk hit them with a lawsuit for $1.375 million. In 1977, Milk won an election to the city Board of Supervisors (making him the first openly gay person elected to any office in the United States, yes, and I’d focus on that more but really it needs its own post.)

Also on the Board of Supervisors was Dan White — a former police officer who now owned a restaurant. He was a conservative in a city that was turning more and more liberal, and his restaurant was having serious financial problems. He resigned on November 10, 1978. Shortly after that, he met with the Board of Realtors and the Police Officers’ Association — both organizations encouraged him to ask for his position back, correctly realizing that his vote was essential in preventing more liberal policies that they opposed from being implemented in the city. So White asked for his position back — the liberals on the Board of Supervisors did not want him to get his position back. Milk and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver led them in encouraging Mayor George Moscone not to reinstate White. And ultimately, on November 26, Moscone announced that he had agreed not to reinstate White. On November 27, White broke into the city hall through a basement window, went into the Mayor’s office, argued with him and then shot him three times — twice in the head. He then went to his former office, called for Milk to join him there, and shot Milk four times — twice in the head. Their bodies were found by city supervisor Dianne Feinstein.

White was arrested, obviously, for the double homicide. The prosecutor, Thomas Newman, sought charges for first degree murder with special circumstances, so he could ask for the death penalty. Meanwhile the San Francisco police and fire departments raised $100,000 for White’s defense, and they attended the trial wearing shirts that said “Free Dan”. As this was going on, police attacks against the gay community began to gain momentum. In March of 1979, drunk off-duty members of the police squad attacked a lesbian bar called Peg’s Place in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Tensions between the city’s LGBTQ+ community and the police had never been higher.

The defense attorney, Douglas Schmidt, played a recording of Dan’s confession to the jury where he ranted about the amount of pressure he was under — which some members of jury actually cried after hearing — and had a psychiatrist stated that White had diminished capacity due to a poor mental state. The evidence of this poor mental state was the amount of junk food he’d been eating — something which came to be known as the “Twinkie defense”. The jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison with the possibility of early release.

News of the verdict reached the Castro Distract. Activist Cleve Jones announced the news to a crowd of about 500 people, saying “Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. It was not manslaughter. I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.” The people there were fairly convinced that the prosecution and the police had worked together to ensure White would not have a severe sentence (although Newman denied this until his death and no proof has ever come to light of such a conspiracy.)

The crowd started marching, shouting “Out of the bars and into the streets” down Castro Street. Each time they passed a bar, people answered the call. They circled through the district until the crowd had roughly tripled in size — and then they started towards city hall. By the time they got there, the crowd was about 5,000 people. There were only a handful of police and they had not dealt with a crowd this large and angry before — they attempted to hold the mob back but to no avail. The crowd started vandalizing city hall, tearing gilded ornamental work off of the iron gates of the building and using them to bust open windows. Some activists attempted to calm things, including Milk’s longtime partner Joseph Scott Smith.

Police reinforcements arrived, attacking the crowd with nightsticks. (Absolutely exactly the wrong thing to do. This is ten years after Stonewall, they really should have known better.) The crowd started setting police cars on fire — ultimately, thirteen police cars and eight other vehicles would be set ablaze. As the last of the police cars was set on fire, the man who did it told a reporter on the scene “make sure you put in the paper that I ate too many Twinkies.”

These burning cars became such an iconic symbol, that the punk rock band Dead Kennedys used a photograph of a burning police car from that night as the album cover of their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in 1980. Members of the crowd also stole tear gas cannisters from these police vehicles, and threw them at the police. The crowd pulled down the cables for the trolleys, disabling them.

Inside city hall, Police Chief Charles Gain — at that moment the most gay friendly police chief in the city’s history (and one of the most hated by his subordinates) ordered his men to stand their ground but not to attack the crowd. Meanwhile, Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Supervisor Carol Ann Silver attempted to calm down the crowd by sympathizing with them — Silver even stated “Dan White has gotten away with murder. It’s as simple as that.” Some sort of object, can’t find good records as it what it was, got thrown at Silver, injuring her.

After three hours of rioting, the police launched a full offensive — their badges covered with black tape to hide their identities (sound familiar?), particularly as they were not following orders. They also used tear gas — but the rioters fought back, using anything they could get their hands on as a weapon, including pieces they tore off of city buses and pieces of asphalt they ripped out of the street itself. Nevertheless, the crowd did eventually disperse.

And then the police defied their orders from Chief Gain and attacked the Castro District in retaliation — they began at a bar called the Elephant Walk, which they vandalized — breaking windows and beating the patrons inside. After fifteen minutes, they left the bar and began indiscriminately attacking people in the streets of the district. This carried on for two hours before Chief Gain heard about it and went to the Elephant Walk. Upon seeing the damage, he immediately ordered the police to withdraw.

Mike Weiss — a freelance reporter who had been covering the trial of Dan White and would publish the book Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings in 1984 — stated that he encountered a couple of police officers at a bar later that night, drinking and laughing. One officer reportedly told him, “We were at City Hall the day the killings happened and were smiling then. We were there tonight and we’re still smiling.” Now, it’s true that Weiss is the only source for this, but he did win a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Baltimore riot in 1968 so he does have some credibility.

The rioting caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage in just a few hours. Adjusted for inflation it’s estimated this damage would have been over a million dollars were it to happen today — making this, as far as I know, the most expensive riot in queer history. Certainly putting the Stonewall Riots to shame. Aside from the property damage, 140 protesters were injured — with 100 of those needing to be hospitalized — as well as about 61 police officers.

The next day, the leaders of the gay community in San Francisco held a press conference. The media was expecting that these officials would condemn the violence and apologize. Instead, Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk as city supervisor for the Castro district, issued this statement: “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.” They made it abundantly clear to the people of the Castro that no one was ever to apologize for the riot at all. As of this day, no one has — of course, neither have the police.

That night, an estimated 20,000 people rallied in the Castro District. May 22 was Milk’s birthday, so the rally had been planned long before the rioting. The rally managed to stay peaceful, although the entire city was tense. If anything, Cleve Jones can be credited with keeping it that way — laying out contingency plans, coordinating with Chief Gain, and having 300 monitors to keep an eye on the crowd. However, the point of the rally originally had been to have a celebration of Milk’s life and that had not changed. Despite the underlying anger, there was still plenty of dancing and partying in the streets.

A grand jury was convened to determine who had ordered the attack on the Elephant Walk — but there was no real evidence, so it remains a mystery. No officers ever faced consequences for the police action. With Feinstein looking to win a full term election as mayor, she spent a lot of money campaigning in the Castro district — courting the still politically powerful gay community. Her primary promise to them was to appoint more gay people into public offices. After her election, she kept this promise — even replacing Chief Gain with the openly gay Cornelius Murphy. Murphy overturned some of Gain’s less popular policies (namely, the colors that police cars were painted) which won him some popularity with the police force, but insisted on progressive policies regarding the gay community. By the following year, one out of every seven new police recruits in San Francisco was gay or lesbian.

The riots had received national attention and, if anything, stressed the need for minorities to be represented in government. Gay and lesbian people began to be elected or appointed to public office all over the country. The legacy of those riots lasted for decades. In 2009, fearful of what the verdict might be, as the California Supreme Court deliberated on the case of Strauss v. Horton, the then Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom asked the court not to announce their decision on May 21. Although the court actually decided in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, they still agreed not to publicly announce their decision on the 30th anniversary of the riots, waiting until May 26.

Unfortunately, of all the things that have changed in the 41 years since the White Night Riots, police brutality in the United States is really not one of them. This week we’ve seen historic protests over this issue — and a lot of controversy about riots. We cannot, as a community, forget where we’ve come from. I’m not saying we all need to go out and start riots right now, but I am saying that our community already fought this battle with decades of rioting. There are people still fighting this battle, people our community has left behind. We need to support them now.

No justice, no peace.

And no apologies.

Charlie Howard

There’s been a lot of conversation lately about the beginning of the new movie It Chapter 2 because — spoiler alert/trigger warning — it opens with the murder of a gay man. This scene is taken pretty much directly from Stephen King’s novel It but that, in turn, is taken pretty much directly from an actual hate crime that took place in Bangor, Maine in 1984.

howardCharlie Howard was born on January 31, 1961 and was raised in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was fairly effeminate and suffered from asthma as a child, so he was bullied pretty relentlessly throughout his youth. He even skipped his high school graduation in order to spare his family from witnessing the bullying he received. After high school, he left New Hampshire and headed to Maine — eventually finding his way to Bangor. He joined the local Unitarian church, and became involved in the gay rights and support group Interweave.

charlie_howard-copy-696x385Charlie was not quiet about his sexuality — which was unusual for that time in the 80’s. He would wear jewelry, accessories like earrings and a purse, and make-up if he felt like it. (Frankly, that’s pretty brave even now — thirty-five years later.) Unfortunately, this got him a good deal of negative attention from the general population — he was harassed by locals teens, and in one trip to a grocery store a woman chased him out shouting things like “You pervert!” at him. One time, while leaving his apartment, Charlie found his pet kitten strangled to death. Charlie learned quickly to be wary of locals — but he never toned down his queerness.

On July 7, 1984, Charlie attended a potluck at Interweave — he and his friend Roy Ogden left the party at about 10:00 pm. The two were crossing the Kenduskeag River Bridge on State Street, when they were spotted by a car full of teenagers — two girls, and three boys: Shawn Mabry, Daniel Ness, and Jim Baines. They stopped the car, and the three boys got out. Charlie and Roy ran — the teenage boys chased them. An asthma attack hit Charlie, making him easy to catch. The boys began to beat him, and then decided to throw him over the side of the bridge — despite Charlie’s pleas that he could not swim. He tried to grab a hold of the railing on the bridge, but the boys pried his hands loose. Shawn Mabry gave the final push that sent Charlie into the water below.

As they were leaving the scene of the crime, they spotted Roy Ogden and threatened his life should he tell anyone. That didn’t stop him from pulling the nearest fire alarm he could find to summon the police. Charlie’s body was pulled from the river at about 12:10 am. The autopsy would show that he died from drowning, with an acute asthma attack contributing.

The next day, with news that Charlie had died, one of the boys turned himself in to the police. The other two were quickly arrested. They were remanded to their parents custody and tried as juveniles. They claimed that a few days earlier, Charlie had made passes at them. The “gay panic” defense did not work — mostly because they’d previously told police they’d just wanted to “beat up a faggot” and that that was something they’d done before. All three ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter. They were each sentenced to the Maine Youth Center for an indeterminate length of time not to exceed their 21st birthdays. Juvenile records are sealed but it has been reported that Mabry served 22 months, Baines serve two full years, and there is no public record of how long Ness served. After his release, Baines has spoken to many groups across Maine about his involvement in the murder, and about how dangerous intolerance and hatred can be. Edward Armstrong wrote about Baines story in Penitence: A True Story — published in 1994. Baines did not receive any royalties for his participation.

howard_stream_memorial_004The murder had a lasting impact on the community of Bangor, Maine. Every year since the attack, they have thrown flowers off of the bridge where it occurred. They constructed a monument in honor of Charlie along the banks of the Kenduskeag Stream. Partly as a reaction to the killing, the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance (now EqualityMaine) was founded. The Maine Speakout Project keeps the Charlie Howard Memorial Library open to the public in Portland, Maine.

Aside from being the source for the hate crime in the beginning of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, the crime also inspired the novel The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Green, published in 1991. Mark Doty also wrote about the murder in the poem “Charlie Howard’s Descent.” But, perhaps, instead of the focus on his murder, we should all be focusing more on his willingness to be himself openly and unapologetically — no matter the cost.