Family of hate crime victim hold out hope for ‘closure’ as murder case remains unsolved

Australian LGBTQ+ flag.

It has been 34 years since the family of Australian man John Russell first learned that his remains had been found at the bottom of a cliff near Bondi, Sydney.

Russell, a 31-year-old local barman, had been openly gay – a detail that his family, and now investigators, believe may have resulted in his demise.

When police first investigated Russell’s death back in 1989, they determined that he simply fell from a cliff in Marks Park.

But his family’s suspicions were confirmed when a 2005 inquest found that Russell had not fallen, but was thrown from the cliff as part of a heinous hate crime.

Not only that, but the inquest found that police had discovered a key piece of evidence at the crime scene: a piece of human hair nestled in Russell’s hand. In an infuriating discovery, it turned out that the crucial clue that could have led police to Russell’s killer had been lost.

Now, an inquiry by New South Wales Police is looking into John Russell’s case, and many more like his, again to look for more answers and determine whether or not homophobia was at play in the initial police investigation.

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Speaking to ABC’s 7.30, Russell’s cousin James Brooking said: “It’s still unfinished.

“We’ve all just got to live in hope and have the belief that eventually justice will be made to all the victims, but also to the survivors.”

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Russell’s brother Peter has been assisting the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry with their investigation into unsolved LGBTQ+ hate crimes.

Peter believes that those responsible for his brother’s death would have been brought to justice sooner if the police had taken their investigation more seriously at the time.

“[It was] appalling at best,” he said.

Still, he has vowed that he will find his brother’s killers if it’s the last thing he does.

“It’s a story that has to be told,” he told the current affairs program.

“It’s been a very long and arduous 34 years to get to this point, and anything that can lead us to the path of closure or any form of answer is why we’re here.”

John Russel’s murder is one of more than 30 unsolved cases of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes being investigated by NSW Police in a lengthy inquiry.

Anti-gay hate crime peaked in Sydney during the ’80s AIDS epidemic, with 88 gay men killed between 1976 and 2000, despite the decriminalisation of homosexual sex in New South Wales in 1984. 

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Homophobia may have impacted the original investigation

Speaking about the numerous gaps in police investigations at that time, former NSW policeman Duncan McNab said that this was mostly the result of an innocent ‘stuff-up’, but acknowledged that homophobia may have also been at play.

“I think there was some anti-gay bias, or just, you know, ‘They got what they deserved,’ or ‘If the blokes weren’t hanging around cliff faces in the middle of the night it wouldn’t have happened so, you know, tough, you play the game and this is the result.’ And for some police, this was obviously in their minds.”

While it’s rare for cold cases like John Russell’s to see a major breakthrough, it’s not inconceivable that something new might come to light.

Not only have the victim’s clothes been sent out for new DNA testing, but the NSW Police are now offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who can provide information on the case that leads to a conviction – though Peter Russell is hoping to bump that offer to $1 million.

With little steps like this, the grieving family is hopeful that they will see justice served.

“I always have a motto in life that says, ‘To leave love behind means you never leave,’ and I can see John standing at that spot. And the love that he’s left behind, we know that he’s not gone, but we just hope that he has justice.”

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