A few weeks ago TV audiences were hooked on the true life mystery of a US child pageant queen murdered 20 years ago, with bumper ratings and watercooler buzz.
If viewers are fascinated by unsolved crimes can we hope that Deep Water: The Real Story also draws a sizeable audience? It is, after all, much closer to home and there are 88 more reasons why this is more important.
There are two indisputable, unforgiveable chapters evident in this sorry saga: one is the horrendous violent crimes that took place in Sydney in the 1980s and 90s, and the second is that New South Wales police swept so many under the carpet.
Indeed as interview subjects here recall, teenage gangs attacking gay men were acting in response to societal attitudes of the era, knowing gay men would not report them and that police would not investigate them.
Much of this excellent documentary by Blackfella Films centres around crimes committed in Bondi, where Mark’s Park, an unlit isolated clifftop, became a notorious gay beat. Teen gangs went “poofter bashing” as a sport, or even a rite of passage, against many men who were still closeted. Some of them never came home, their bodies found on the rocks below. Many cases were attributed to “misadventure” or suicide, leaving families angry with crimes lacking justice.
David McMahon tells of a 1989 incident where he was assaulted during a jog and almost thrown off the cliffs. Ted Russell, father of John Russell, speaks about his son’s death and the pointless and inconclusive inquest that followed.
“Doesn’t matter if he’s gay. He’s still your kid,” he says. Both Ted and son John (pictured) are still waiting for answers.
TV personality Susie Elelman remembers WIN News presenter Ross Warren who never came home one day in 1989. It took family members to search the rocks below rugged Tamarama cliffs to find his keys carefully placed in a small rockface -his body was never found.
However in one case there were students charged with crimes, but who remained at school during the interim. They attended the same school where a teacher, in an “unrelated” case, was also murdered. It was clear there were gangs at work.
The ‘Alexandria Eight’ as they came to be known were convicted over the death of Richard Johnson, 2 for murder and 6 for manslaughter. But as one man recalls, “A lot of them felt it was the gay man’s fault.”
There were also other incidents around Sydney. In Moore Park one night Alan Rosendale was assaulted by men with clubs -but what makes his case so disturbing is that it is now alleged to have been perpetrated by out of uniform police. In 2014 NSW police ruled there was no evidence to implicate police.
Near Manly’s northern beach American Scott Johnson’s body was found naked in 1988. His brother was forced to hire an investigative journalist to seek answers to his death after police ruled his death as suicide. Last year NSW Chief Inspector Pamela Young told Lateline the death was investigated “to the standard of the day.” Following media pressure an unprecedented third coronial inquest has since been ordered.
Former detectives, crime journalists, forensic pathologists and an ex-State Coroner back up the documentary’s argument that police failed to actively investigate a plethora of crimes. There are mind-numbing quotes about disinterest, quick conclusions, poor detective work which helped create a culture of violence in Sydney.
They are contrasted with helpless family members, some defeated, some angry -all in search of justice.
The documentary also moodily re-enacts key incidents and uses actors to bring to life actual dialogue from prison recordings. A final 2016 “letter” makes for a powerful footnote to 90 minutes of tough but compelling viewing.
It’s important to note that there remains 88 unsolved cases here. NSW Police were approached on multiple occasions to participate in the documentary. As the film reminds us, it was print media pressure that has helped to move some cases forward.
That these crimes remain unsolved should make everybody angry. There are still witnesses, now into their 40s, who know what went on. It is essential that media once again plays a role in helping justice to be served. SBS and Blackfella Films are to be congratulated for turning the spotlight to this horrific chapter in our social history.
Sometimes television can play a role other than merely entertaining us. If we as a society care.
Deep Water: The Real Story airs 8:30pm Sunday on SBS.