By Rick Feneley
Johno, I miss you terribly, the old Homestead just isn’t the same when someone is missing especially you.
John Russell was 19 years old and away working in Queensland when his mother, Pam, wrote that letter in 1977. She couldn’t have known then that, 45 years later, her words would adorn a public sculpture. Nor could she have predicted the terrible events that inspired this monument’s creation. Pam Russell did not live for long enough to learn of the violent deaths of gay men in the same park, or that her son would be one of them.
John was 31 when, in November 1989, his body was found at the base of a cliff on the Bondi side of Marks Park. Police soon dismissed it as an accidental death, as they had the disappearance four months earlier of another gay man, 24-year-old WIN TV newsreader Ross Warren, from the Tamarama side of the park. In 2005, the then deputy state coroner, Jacqueline Milledge, described the police efforts in these cases as “disgraceful”, “lacklustre” and “shameful”.
She concluded John did not fall but was thrown from the cliff and that Ross, although his body was never found, was murdered. They were killed because they were gay. While the coroner had insufficient evidence to make a formal finding in the case of Frenchman Gilles Mattaini – who had vanished without trace in 1985 – she said he likely met a similar fate.
Marks Park was a gay beat, a meeting place for homosexual men. There were many such beats across Sydney and beyond in that era, well before the advent of the internet and the discretion allowed by dating apps such as Grindr or OkCupid. Gay beats, however, attracted not only gay men. They were also a magnet for gay bashers, typically mobs of teenage boys who found easy prey among men who dared to seek the company of other men in public places.
Weeks after John Russell died, a gang of as many as 18 teenagers, including girls cheering on the boys, dragged 24-year-old David McMahon towards that cliff. David escaped their clutches and ran for his life, so he lives to tell the story. He recalls the ringleader saying: “Let’s throw him off where we threw the other dude.”
The following July, Thai man Kritchikorn Rattanajaturathaporn found the company of a man in Marks Park. Three teenagers set upon the pair. While under attack, Kritchikorn fell from a cliff to his death. His killers were arrested and convicted, as were the eight teenagers who punched and kicked Richard Johnson to death in Alexandra Park in 1990. Bringing gay killers to justice, however, was rare.
We now know there was a crescendo of homophobic violence in this era, and that it was far from confined to Marks Park. This beautiful headland sanctuary, nevertheless, will always carry the memory of that ugly brutality.
And yet, since 1997, the same park has been the focal point –and the starting point – for an annual event of unequivocal civic pride, Sculpture by the Sea. Each year, from here to Tamarama Beach, more than 100 sculptures ornament the two-kilometre coastal walk. Much of the allure of this exhibition is the impermanence of its sculptures. They come and they go. Each year there will be new work to admire, new artists to acclaim.
From this year on, however, amid those transitory marvels, one sculpture will remain. Rise is here to stay, a public memorial to the men who died, but also a tribute to the survivors and the tireless campaigners whose efforts are, at last, resulting in some answers for loved ones.
Following a public tender, Waverley Council and ACON, the LGBTQ health organisation, commissioned the sculpture, which is a series of six stone terraces that replicate the topography of the sea cliffs beneath the park. But why the title, Rise? Its creator, John Nicholson of Brisbane’s Urban Art Projects, explains that it is an inversion of the experience of the victims. Rather than a descent, it “climbs towards the horizon and the sky, and as a pathway forward from the history of violence”.
It is about dignity. And hope.
As one of the journalists who has spent many years covering gay-hate crimes, I admit I’ve often despaired about the prospect of justice. But this year, above all years, has brought hope.
American Scott Johnson was 27 when he died at another gay beat in December 1988, only months before John Russell and Ross Warren. Scott’s body was found across the harbour, at the base of a 60-metre cliff at North Head. His brother, Steve Johnson, never believed the original coronial finding: suicide.
His self-funded investigation over many years recruited help from the likes of Steve Page, the former homicide detective whose work led Jacqueline Milledge to her coronial findings on the Marks Park murders, and from Sue Thompson, a lawyer and former police gay and lesbian client consultant. It was Thompson and criminologist Stephen Tomsen who compiled a list of more than 80 deaths that they suspected could be gay-hate crimes.
Steve Johnson’s dogged campaign spurred a second and a third inquest into Scott’s death, then a “fresh eyes” police investigation led by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans, which arrested a man in 2020. This year, that man pleaded guilty to Scott’s murder, although he is now appealing against the verdict. We must allow the justice system to run its course, as we must in the case of a man recently charged with the 1987 murder of Raymond Keam at Randwick.
The clamour for justice created by Steve Johnson and his many allies also led to a NSW parliamentary inquiry, which recommended a judicial inquiry. That commission of inquiry, led by Justice John Sackar, is currently delving into many unsolved cases.
Peter Russell and his partner, Donna Hannah, live in hope that all these endeavours might deliver an answer about the death of Peter’s brother, John, at Marks Park. Donna has penned a message, Justice for Johno, and posted it on Facebook to mark the 33rd anniversary of his death, which coincides with Sculpture by the Sea.
“Someone out there must know who did this to John, and so many other victims,” Donna writes. “Someone, perhaps, who was amid a gang of teenagers. Someone who might not have even thrown a punch, but who knows who did. Someone who was a kid then but middle-aged now, who has grown up and maybe even grown a backbone. John never really stood a chance. But that someone could give John and his family some justice now.”
Might someone, anyone, rise to that kind of courage? Might they visit the sculpture and be moved, emboldened, by Pam Russell’s words?
Meanwhile, this one sculpture by the sea, Rise, demands its permanent place in Marks Park.
Rick Feneley is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.