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.
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….
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.