John MacLennan’s murder



John MacLennan | South China Morning Post | 14251

In 1980 allegedly gay policeman John MacLennan was murdered in Hong Kong.

In 1970’s Colonial Hong Kong, homosexual male law enforcers faced life in jail if they were discovered.

John MacLennan, then aged 29 and from Scotland, was found dead, shot five times in his chest, by a team of policemen who were about to arrest him for soliciting male prostitutes, on January 15 1980, just over a year after MacLennan was sacked from the Hong Kong police for ‘gross indecency’ on November 4, 1978 and given one month’s salary in lieu of notice. An investigation failed to discover how MacLennan had died. Police decline to say how many wounds he had sustained and claimed the death was a suicide. There were rumours that his death was a result of his knowledge of heavily closeted Hong Kong gay officials.

MacLennan had been subjected to repeated investigations by the Special Investigation Unit, which was set up in 1978 to investigate homosexual activities involving law-enforcement officers. Mr MacLennan first became a target of the SIU after being reported for making homosexual advances, which led to his subsequent firing. The SIU allegedly attempted to lure another homosexual officer to “test” MacLennan’s sexual preferences.

The SIU decided to arrest him in January 1980 – but he died hours before they could do so.

Mr MacLennan was cremated on January 22, 1980. An inquest was repeatedly delayed. On March 12, 1980 the Inquest Jury delivered an open verdict. On May 8, 1980 British MPs Robert Parry and Robin Cook wrote to the minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ask for a new inquiry into Mr MacLennan’s death.

On June 5, 1980 one of Mr MacLennan’s friends in the Hong Kong Police issued a statement that Mr MacLennan was liked and respected in the force, and expressed surprise at the allegation that he was a homosexual and the idea that he had committed suicide.

Mr MacLennan’s death sparked the most expensive public inquiry in Hong Kong’s history, costing HK$16 million.

In June 2013 the South China Morning Post reported further developments in this long standing case.

Murray Burton, a solicitor involved in the controversial inquiry into the death of Inspector John MacLennan in 1980 has no doubts that he committed suicide, and that he was “hounded into killing himself” by Hong Kong’s police hierarchy. Burton was the solicitor to the independent commission for the MacLennan Inquiry in 1981. He was involved in the investigation for its entire duration until the commission produced its report 14 months later. “I can assure you there was no cover-up or whitewash. To this day I’m asked how is it possible for an individual to shoot themselves five times,” Burton said. “But only one of the five shots was considered by ballistics and forensics to be fatal.”

Burton said MacLennan was seated on his bed holding his revolver reversed. Some shots were fired into his stomach and abdomen area, as well as his chest. He did not shoot himself in either the head or the heart.

The fact that police officers did not bag MacLennan’s hands at the scene was also a crucial mistake, as residue from the gunshots could have proved he shot himself. Instead it left open the possibility he had been murdered. But Burton was in no doubt that he was driven to suicide. MacLennan would have been the first police officer in the city to have been arrested for homosexuality.

“He was completely and unfairly targeted by the police authorities. There were much more high-ranking police officers at the time who were homosexual but were above prosecution,” Burton said. “MacLennan was hounded into killing himself. The night before, he was told confidentially by his superior officer that he was going to be arrested. You can imagine his state of mind. The whole inquiry had a huge effect on me.”

Burton left private legal practice after the inquiry had released its report.

Hong Kong was a British Dependent Territory under British administration from 1841 to 1997.

Homosexual sex was decriminalized in Hong Kong in 1991, but there is still no anti-discrimination legislation to protect LGBT citizens in the Special Administrative Region of China, which has its own government and laws.



2 thoughts on “John MacLennan’s murder

    • His hands were not tested to see whether he had fired the pistol himself. He was cremated without his next of kin’s consent. No experienced policeman would commit suicide by gunshot other than in the head.
      No-one in HK at the time had any doubt that he had been murdered. Many had a fair idea who was responsible and why.


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