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.

Matthew Shepard

matthew_shepardI hope that almost anyone reading this site knows at least something about Matthew Shepard — whose face became a figurehead in the gay rights movement after his grisly murder in 1998.

Matthew was born on December 1, 1976 in Casper, Wyoming to parents Judy and Dennis Shepard. He was their eldest son — their other son Logan was born in 1981. He had a close relationship with his brother. He attended local schools through his junior year of high school, developing an interest in politics, and was generally friendly to his classmates even though he was frequently teased for being thin and not athletic.

12xp-shepard-1-articlelarge

In 1994, Dennis Shepard was hired by Saudi Aramco to be an oil rig inspector, and Shepard’s parents moved to Dahran, Saudi Arabia for the job. Matthew attended his senior year of high school at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). While there, he started studying German and Italian and became interested in music, fashion, and theater. During February of his year there, he and three classmates took a vacation to Morocco — where Matthew was beaten, robbed, and raped by a group of locals who were never caught. The attack was traumatic for Matthew — afterwards he had bouts of depression, anxiety and paranoia and experienced flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts which lasted through the remainder of his life, despite his best efforts in therapy. When therapy seemed to fail him, he turned to drug use. He also began routinely being tested for HIV after this.

matthew-shepard-ht-jef-181003_hpmain_4x3_992

Matthew graduated from TASIS in 1995. Shortly after his graduation, Matthew came out to his mother. She was very accepting of him and apparently coming out was entirely without drama, so we’re just going to breeze by it now. After high school, Matthew began to study theater at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina until he briefly moved to Raleigh. He enrolled at Casper College in his hometown. At Casper College, he met Romaine Patterson, who became his close friend. Together, they moved to Denver where Matthew took on a series of short-lived part time jobs.

At 21 years old, Matthew enrolled at his parents’ alma mater, Wyoming University in Laramie. He felt that a small town environment would make him feel safer than he had in Denver. He began studying political science, international relations, and foreign languages. He quickly became an active member of the campus’ LGBTQ+ student organization and earned a reputation for passionately pursuing equality. Some time after beginning school at Wyoming University, Matthew tested positive for HIV — a fact he confided in a handful of friends, but kept from his parents.

And that brings us to October 6, 1998. Matthew was at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. According to later testimonies, Matthew encountered two men — Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson — in the bar that night. They pretended to be gay to lure him out to McKinney’s truck. Matthew was expecting a ride home, but put his hand on McKinney’s knee, which set off a deep rage in McKinney. The two men robbed Matthew, hit him with a gun, beat him and tortured him until he was covered in his own blood and was virtually unrecognizable. They tied him to a fence in the middle of nowhere and left him there in temperatures that were close to freezing. According to later testimonies, both men were completely sober and, after finding out his address, planned on robbing Matthew’s home as well. First, however, they returned to the town and subsequently got into a fight with two other men. When police broke up the fight, McKinney was arrested and his truck was searched. They found shoes, a bloody gun, and a credit card also smeared with blood. The shoes and credit card belonged to Matthew.

Eighteen hours later, a man named Aaron Kreifels went past the fence on his bicycle. He initially mistook Matthew for a scarecrow, but upon realizing that it was a badly beaten, comatose person he immediately called the police. It’s reported that there was so much on Matthew’s face that the only places you could see his skin were tracks from his tears running down his face. The first officer to respond was Reggie Fluty. She arrived with a supply of faulty medical gloves, which she eventually ran out of while trying to clear blood out of Matthew’s mouth so he could breathe. When Matthew’s HIV status became clear to authorities, Fluty was put on a regiment of AZT for a month but she did not contract the virus.

Matthew was brought to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, and then moved to a more advanced facility at Pudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. Even there, the doctors decided his injuries were too severe for operations. Matthew remained in a coma until October 12, when he was taken off of life support and pronounced dead.

During the six days, news of the attack had gained international attention. Candlelight vigils were held around the world — as well as anti-gay demonstrations. When Matthew’s funeral was held, the Westboro Baptist Church protested — gaining themselves national attention. (Which, of course, is all those parasites want or care about so I’m saying the bare minimum about them.) In response, Romaine Patterson organized a counter-protest where a group of people dressed as angels to block out the protest — this would be the foundation of the organization Angel Action.

Meanwhile, authorities arrested McKinney and Henderson. They were charged with attempted murder (later upgraded to first degree murder), kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Their girlfriends, who had provided alibis and tried to help dispose of evidence, were charged with being accessories after the fact. McKinney’s girlfriend Kristen Price told detectives that the violence had been set off by how McKinney “[felt] about the gays” (a testimony she recanted in 2004) and the defense team attempted to argue that McKinney had gone temporarily insane when Matthew had come onto him. This is one of the most famous examples of the “gay panic” defense, but the judge rejected that argument.

Henderson took a plea deal, pleading guilty and agreeing to two consecutive lifetime sentences instead of the death penalty. In exchange, he testified against McKinney. McKinney was found guilty by a jury of felony murder, but not of premeditated murder. While they deliberating on whether or not he should receive the death penalty, Shepard’s parents arranged a deal — McKinney would serve two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.

In the years that followed, this attack would remain in the minds of the American population. The events inspired a number of television, film, and theatrical works — the most notable (in my opinion) being The Laramie Project and Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine (go watch those if you haven’t seen them yet!) More importantly, Matthew’s death was a major part of the impetus for passing more comprehensive anti-hate crime legislation in the United States. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act (sometimes called the Matthew Shepard Act) became law on October 28, 2009.

Dennis and Judy Shepard have been staunch advocates for LGBTQ+ rights since the attack, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they founded, has become a massive force for education and advocacy regarding LGBTQ+ issues. This year — on the 20th anniversary of the attack — it was announced that Matthew’s remains will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral on October 26, 2018.