On May 22, 1984, homosexuality was decriminalised in NSW. What was an important milestone for equality and civil rights was overshadowed in the decade that followed by an epidemic of gay hate crimes that marked one of Sydney’s darkest chapters.
Hate crimes committed against members of the LGBTQ community had been occurring for decades but reached rampant proportions throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet the pursuit of justice for these crimes was a difficult and complicated process, often hampered by deceit, fear and a distinct lack of inaction by the NSW Police.
Such was the mood of these times that perpetrators often felt police wouldn't bother to investigate their activities, so they had free reign to undertake bashing and killing sprees at some of Sydney's busiest beats.
Marks Park and the coastline path along the cliffs of South Bondi was where John Russell, Ross Warren, Kritchikorn Rattanajurathaporn and Gilles Mattaini were murdered. Many others were bashed and narrowly escaped being thrown from the clifftops to their death.
Initially, the deaths of Russell and Warren were dismissed by police as accidents or suicide, while Mattaini's disappearance was never investigated. Rattanajurathaporn's killers were caught and sentenced to 20 years for his murder.
Similar crimes were being committed across Sydney, including the murders of William Allen and Richard Johnson in Alexandria Park. Allen's killers were never found, while Johnson's killers faced a range of sentences. On the other side of the city at North Head, Scott Johnson's mysterious death at the bottom of a cliff was labelled as suicide.
It is estimated almost 90 gay hate murders were committed during this time, but it is suspected the true figure is much higher. The majority of crimes, however, were under-investigated or disregarded by police, with few of the main suspects ever facing justice.
In 1990 Detective Sergeant Steve McCann was the first person in the NSW Police to explore the potential links between the succession of murders and savage assaults on gay men in Bondi and across Sydney. He was assisted by Sue Thompson, the Police Client Consultant Gay Liaison officer.
They gathered evidence of the extent of hate crimes, the links between a number of the attacks and perpetrators, and also explored other cases filed as suicides, deaths by misadventure and disappearances.
Despite the extensive work by McCann and Thompson, no new investigations into the crimes were launched by the NSW Police.
Kay Warren, the mother of missing TV newsreader Ross Warren, waged her own unrelenting campaign for years to have her son's death re-examined, but police showed little interest.
In 2000, a letter from Kay was discovered by Detective Sergeant Steve Page, who began looking into the Warren case and soon questioned the findings and diligence of the original investigation.
In April 2001, Page launched Operation Taradale, a three-year investigation focussing on the Warren and Russell cases, and including a number of other deaths. A pattern was identified of systemic violence against gay men and the extensive networks of youths involved.
In a significant number of cases, Page discovered no police records existed, while other key documents and evidence were missing.
In 2003, the Operation Taradale report was delivered to the Deputy State Coroner Jacqueline Milledge. In 2005, Milledge released her findings, concluding that Warren and Russell had both been murdered and describing the original police investigation into Warren's death as "grossly inadequate and shameful" and Russell's as "lacklustre".
Despite a range of incriminating details regarding various suspects, Milledge stated there was insufficient evidence to recommend any new prosecutions.
In 2015, NSW Police offered rewards of $100,000 each for information relating to the disappearance of Mattaini and Warren, and the death of Russell. To date, no one has ever been charged.
Scott Johnston's brother Steve led a relentless campaign to have Scott's mysterious death at North Head re-investigated. The first inquest in 1989 found the death was suicide, while the second inquest in 2012 was inconclusive. The third inquest in 2017 ruled Scott had fell from the cliff-top as a result of violence from an unidentified attacker who percieved him to be gay.
Recent years have seen an intensifying focus on the crimes of that era. The Sydney Morning Herald's Rick Fenely's extensive reporting uncovered vital details, and the 2016 TV drama Deep Water, along with the companion documentary Deep Water: The Real Story, also attracted attention. Books by Greg Callaghan (Bondi Badlands) and Duncan McNab (Getting Away With Murder) also drew the spotlight.
In 2018, ACON - NSW's leading LGBTQ health organisation - produced the report, In Pursuit of Truth and Justice: Documenting Gay and Transgender Prejudice Killings in NSW in the Late 20th Century, which explored the culture of anti-gay violence and highlighted the failures in the criminal justice system.
Months later, the NSW Police Force released the Strike Force Parrabell report, which reviewed the role of gay-hate bias in 88 deaths between 1976 and 2000. Of the review, 63 were declared solved, 23 remain unsolved and two were not reviewed
In 2019, the NSW Legislative Council established a parliamentary inquiry, which in 2021 recommended a judicial inquiry be established by the NSW government to investigate histowrical hate crimes.
A formal apology by the NSW Police Force to the LGBTQ community has been sought, for the inadequate responses to violence throughout this period. It would be an act of significance, to heal the grief and trauma experienced by the victims, families and other members of the impacted communities.