"We need direct evidence": Homicide squad commander Detective Superintendent Michael Willing. Photo: Steven Siewert
Homicide detectives have revealed they are reviewing two gay-hate murders and two disappearances on the Bondi cliff-tops and have pleaded for the public's help to solve many more killings of homosexual men dating back decades.
"We can't solve some of these cases without the help of the community," says homicide squad commander Detective Superintendent Mick Willing.
After a Fairfax Media investigation pointed to as many as 80 gay-hate murders between the late 1970s and late '90s – almost 30 of which remain unsolved – Superintendent Willing agreed to an interview this week, saying: "I know I've been quiet until this point and there is a reason for that – and that's because we're quietly working away on it."
John Russell, murdered in 1989.
Police are reviewing the cases covered by a 10-year-old police investigation, Operation Taradale, which focused on a rampage of gay-hate bashings by youth gangs in the late 1980s and early '90s. The cases under review include:
- The murder of John Russell, 31, whose body was found at the base of a cliff at Marks Park at Bondi on November 24, 1989. Police originally dismissed it as an accidental fall but, in 2005, deputy state coroner Jacqueline Milledge – after considering the Taradale evidence – found Russell was thrown to his death from the cliff to the rocks. She called the original investigation "naive" and "lacklustre" and said the loss of a crucial exhibit – the clump of blond hair that Russell was clutching in his hand, indicating he had put up a fight – was "disgraceful";
- The disappearance of television newsreader Ross Warren, 25, on July 22, 1989. Milledge was satisfied that Warren was also murdered and she called the original police investigation "grossly inadequate and shameful";
- The disappearance of Frenchman and Bondi resident Gilles Mattaini, 34, around Marks Park on September 5, 1985, who Milledge found was likely murdered.
The review will also consider the murder of Thai national Krichikorn Rattanajurathaporn, 34, who plunged from a cliff at Marks Park on July 21, 1990. While three teenagers were convicted of that murder – brothers David and Sean McAuliffe and Matthew Davis – Taradale explored potential links with other crimes and other teenage suspects, including the so-called Bondi Boys. The Taradale report, for instance, which was tendered at the inquest into the above cases, notes that one victim who survived a bashing at Bondi identified two of his attackers from police pictures: David McAuliffe and a young man mentioned as a leader of the so-called Bondi Boys, Sean Cushman. David McMahon, a gay man bashed three days later, in December 1989, also selected Cushman from police photographs, but he denied any involvement and there was never enough evidence to charge anyone with these crimes.
Ross Warren, murdered in 1989.
Superintendent Willing said a lot of good police work had already been done on the unsolved cases and this illustrated "how bloody hard these cases are".
"I can say we quietly commenced a review of Operation Taradale back in 2012 . . . I was reticent to come out and say that because generally we like to conduct the reviews of these matters quietly behind the scenes until we decide what to do with them."
But the police decision in February to announce a $100,000 reward in the case of Scott Johnson – a 27-year-old American student found at the base of a North Head cliff near Manly in 1988, and originally dismissed as suicide – had rekindled interest in other gay-hate crimes.
Gilles Mattaini, last seen in 1985.
"If someone has information – evidence, I should say evidence – of a particular homicide, I want them to come forward," Superintendent Willing said. "I really want them to come forward."
He stressed: "A lot of this stuff is hearsay, second-hand. We really need direct evidence about particular crimes."
Asked why rewards had not been announced in the Taradale cases – eight years after the coroner's damning findings – as the Russell family now wonders, Superintendent Willing said rewards may well follow the review.
Scott Johnson, died in 1988.
On the almost 30 unsolved cases cited by the former police gay liaison co-ordinator Sue Thompson and criminologist Steve Tomsen, Superintendent Willing said: "In light of your articles, we again spoke to Sue Thompson and she provided us with her information, or some information. We're still after more information from her. All of her information is being assessed in light of what we had done with the Taradale reviews."
He acknowledged the history of poor relations and broken trust with the gay and lesbian community meant that many victims chose not to report crimes. But he said the police force was working hard to rebuild that trust.
"The gay and lesbian community – this really strikes at the hear of that community. And if people have information about a particular case, they've got to come forward."
Likewise, he appealed to members of the old gay-bashing gangs, or any of their associates who may know what happened.
"Perhaps there are people out there who've grown and who over those years have changed their ways, and perhaps might be in a position to come forward and own up for what they've done. That'd be great."
Superintendent Willing said police had also worked hard to build trust with Scott Johnson's family, whose own investigation led to a fresh coronial finding last year that his death may have been a gay-hate crime, an accident or a suicide.
While police had originally insisted the area on North Head around Blue Fish Point was not a gay beat, the homicide commander said: "Certainly in investigations into the Scott Johnson case, it appears there were groups involved in assaulting particularly gay men. I don't think there's any doubt about that."
That investigation was "going along quite well" although the Crime Stoppers information, since the reward was announced, was yet to yield any concrete leads.
"I desperately want to be able to provide them some answers," he said, but he could make no promises.
"The Johnson family should feel comfortable that we've got some of the best investigators currently working in the police force who are looking at Scott's case, and completely doing it with an open mind and committed to working out what happened to him. But I've made it pretty clear to the Johnson family, too, given that it's 25 years down the case, we may not ever know what happened."