Police have charged a man over the 1988 cold case murder of Scott Johnson, more than 32 years after the American’s body was found at Sydney’s North Head.
The 27-year-old’s body was discovered on December 10, 1988 near Manly’s Blue Fish Point.
Police initially believed Johnson’s death was a suicide, but his brother Steve has always insisted it was a gay hate crime.
Detectives arrested 49-year-old Scott White at Lane Cove about 8.30am on Tuesday, before a search warrant was executed at a nearby home.
He was taken to Chatswood Police Station and charged with murder on Tuesday afternoon.
He has been refused bail and will face Parramatta Court on Wednesday.
Neighbour Natalie Walster told the ABC White had confided in her a few months ago about the investigation.
“He just said ‘I’ve got two detectives on my case about a murder that happened in the 80s. But I didn’t do it. Don’t have it in me’,” Ms Walster recalled.
She said she saw three detectives on Tuesday morning looking through the man’s house.
“He’s always been good to me. I can’t say anything bad about him. He’s always minded his own business,” she said.
The mother-of-two said the man had been a “good neighbour”.
“I’m not sure what to think to be honest. He comes across as a bit of a loner,” she said.
“He hasn’t been bad to me, he’s been good to me. He does favours for me, I do favours for him.
“I don’t know his past, don’t really delve into his past.”
Scott Johnson’s brother Steve described the day’s development as “very emotional … for me and my family” in a video message from the US.
“For my three kids who never got to know their uncle and admire him not just because of his brilliance but because he courageously lived his life the way he wanted to.”
Mr Johnson’s death has been the subject of three coronial inquests.
The first inquest found Johnson took his own life while the second returned an open finding.
At the third inquest, NSW Coroner Michael Barnes found Johnson was the victim of a gay hate crime and fell off the cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence.
In his findings, Mr Barnes highlighted the many reports of gangs committing gay hate assaults in the area where Johnson was found, which was a known beat.
“I am of the view it is very unlikely Scott took his own life,” Mr Barnes said.
“I am persuaded to the requisite standard that Scott died as a result of a gay hate attack.”
In 2018, the NSW Government announced a $1 million reward for information that led to the arrest and conviction of Johnson’s killer or killers.
In March, Steve Johnson doubled the police reward for new information about the death.
On Tuesday morning, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller praised the Johnson family for their determination, which he said “inspired” his officers.
“Making that phone call this morning is a career highlight – Steve has fought so hard for so many years, and it has been an honour be part of his fight for justice,” Commissioner Fuller said.
In his message on Tuesday, Steve expressed his gratitude to Commissioner Fuller, who promised to investigate the death as a homicide after the third inquest.
Mr Johnson also recognised the significance of Tuesday’s arrest for the wider gay community, “for the dozens of other gay men who lost their lives in the 1980s and ’90s, in a world full of anti-gay prejudice and hatred”.
“I hope the friends and families of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what’s happened today,” he said.
“And I hope it opens the door to resolve some of the other mysterious deaths, of men who have not yet received justice.”