main johnson art for online
main johnson art for online

How stabbed cop helped crack 32-year cold case

Two years ago doctors weren't sure if Detective Sargeant John Breda would survive after being stabbed by an alleged sex offender during an arrest.

This week the veteran officer played a major role in cracking one of Sydney's most intriguing cold cases.

What made this week's arrest of suspected murderer Scott Phillip White more remarkable was the fact Det Sgt Breda, 48, was with his Strike Force Welsford colleagues Detective Chief Inspector Yeomans and Detective Senior Constable Tim Carey, 38, who have been by his side throughout his recovery.

Strike Force Welsford: Detective Sergeant John Breda, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans and Detective Senior Constable Tim Carey arrest Scott Phillip White (blurred) over the alleged murder of Scott Johnson. Pic: NSW Police
Strike Force Welsford: Detective Sergeant John Breda, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans and Detective Senior Constable Tim Carey arrest Scott Phillip White (blurred) over the alleged murder of Scott Johnson. Pic: NSW Police

Carey was on shift with Det Sgt Breda when Breda was stabbed in 2018 and Yeomans spent the aftermath at St Vincent's Hospital, where Breda fought for his life.

The three Child Abuse Squad detectives, picked in 2018 to run fresh eyes over the cold case of Scott Johnson, whose body was found at a bottom of a cliff at North Head in Manly in 1988.

His death was initially deemed a suicide, a ruling his family refused to accept. Their struggle for justice culminated this week with the arrest of 49-year-old Scott Phillip White, who was later charged with murdering Mr Johnson.

For Sgt Breda, it was his first case since returning to work full-time following his stabbing in 2018.

 

Det Sgt Breda is taken to an ambulance after he was stabbed the Maroubra Junction Hotel in Sydney in 2018.
Det Sgt Breda is taken to an ambulance after he was stabbed the Maroubra Junction Hotel in Sydney in 2018.

"We are all really close, not just from what happened a couple of years ago but going back before that," Det Yeomans told The Sunday Telegraph, reluctant to comment further on the stabbing that almost cost his colleague and friend his life.

"To achieve something like that, is quite extraordinary actually. It is not that I did it, or John did it or Tim did it, the entire team solved it together."

For the first four weeks of the investigation, the detectives did nothing but read.

There were thousands of pages, including hundreds of profiles of previous suspects.

But Scott Philip White, who in 1988 was an unemployed 18-year-old living in Manly, was not on that list.

 

His brother was mentioned during an inquest that delved into the prolific assaults of gay men around Sydney at beats in the Eastern Suburbs and Northern Beaches.

Scott Philip White being arrested this week.
Scott Philip White being arrested this week.

White's name only emerged in the most recent investigation and after a $1 million reward was announced in September 2018 for information leading to a conviction in relation to Mr Johnson's murder.

Steve Johnson added his own $1 million reward this year.

Speaking for the first time about his return to work after being allegedly stabbed by wanted sex offender Nick Newman inside the Maroubra Junction Hotel, Det Breda told The Sunday Telegraph it was "one step at a time".

"You start small and they are small steps, one day a week, two days a week, three days a week to full time," Det Breda said of his return to work.

"It is one step at a time and hanging out with good people makes it easier."

Scott Johnson with his brother Steve in 1982.
Scott Johnson with his brother Steve in 1982.

A colossal effort went into saving Det Breda's life - from his colleagues, including Det Carey, who stopped Newman inside the packed pub to the doctors who operated on Det Breda as he lost 15 litres of blood.

The officers' actions will be examined at a coronial inquest later this year.

Det Breda spent three weeks in hospital and through exercise and rehabilitation returned to policing part-time in March, 2019.

He shifted to full time in September and joined Detectives Yeomans and Carey on the Johnson investigation.

History showed the Johnson case would be no easy feat - there was no DNA or forensic evidence and a plethora of theories.

An inquest into Mr Johnson's death in 1989 ruled it was a case of suicide.

A second inquest returned an open finding and a third, in 2017, rejected police assertions that Mr Johnson had taken his own life.

State Coroner Michael Barnes found Mr Johnson fell or was pushed off the cliff after being the victim of a homophobic attack.

 

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller announces the arrest at a press conference with Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans. Picture: Richard Dobson
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller announces the arrest at a press conference with Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans. Picture: Richard Dobson

It was on the back of those findings that Commissioner Mick Fuller decided the case needed to be reinvestigated, but outside the Homicide Squad.

By that stage, the Johnson family had been openly scathing about the police force's treatment of the case.

That came after the Unsolved Homicide Team's Detective Chief Inspector Pamela Young appeared on ABC's Lateline in 2015 and accused the then Police Minister of pushing the Johnson family's interests ahead of other victims'.

Based on the information at the time, Insp Young, who was removed from the case, said there was still considerable evidence Mr Johnson killed himself.

To the Johnson family, the entire Unsolved Homicide Team was tarred with the same brush.

They demanded investigators from somewhere else in the police force take carriage of the case.

Fast forward to late 2018. Mr Fuller picked up the phone and called Det Yeomans.

A detective with 40 years experience, Insp Yeomans is regarded among colleagues as a stalwart investigator who is often the first port of call for advice.

He has spent the better part of a decade leading investigations into the most heinous crimes committed against children, a field that has a widely acknowledged high burn out rate among police.

Police announce a $100,000 reward for information into the death of Scott Johnson in 2013 with Scott's siblings Steve and Rebecca Johnson. Pic: NSW Police
Police announce a $100,000 reward for information into the death of Scott Johnson in 2013 with Scott's siblings Steve and Rebecca Johnson. Pic: NSW Police

Before the child abuse squad, Yeomans was at Chatswood Police, where he met Detective Breda in 2007.

A few years later they ended up at the Child Abuse Squad together and in 2016, Detective Carey joined their team.

The Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad carries out more arrests per year than any other team at the State Crime Command but the work is often unsung.

What it does teach detectives is how to delicately deal with victims and their families and draw information from people who don't want to talk, like traumatised children.

Det Yeomans said he asked Breda and Carey to work on the Johnson investigation because they are "two of the best detectives I have ever worked with in all of my career".

"They don't miss anything," he said.

NSW Police search an area on North Head near Manly looking for evidence after a man was arrested earlier today over the 1988 murder of Scott Johnson. Pic: Toby Zerna
NSW Police search an area on North Head near Manly looking for evidence after a man was arrested earlier today over the 1988 murder of Scott Johnson. Pic: Toby Zerna

"Their work ethic is exceptional - that's what you want, really good investigators."

Yeomans politely declines to comment on how he balances the welfare of Carey and Breda after the stabbing on Australia Day. That bit is personal, he says.

But it is acknowledged among senior police that his friendship and professional support has been critical to the officers' return to work.

Other officers have resigned over much less and no one would have begrudged them for doing so.

"It is an absolute credit to them that they have that work ethic and resilience," Det Yeomans said.

It helps that they are also great mates.

White, who was charged with murder, is due to appeal in court in July.

Originally published as How stabbed cop helped crack 32-year cold case

Steve Johnson this week after learning of White’s arrest.
Steve Johnson this week after learning of White’s arrest.