Thirty-two years ago, Lindy Chamberlain ran from a tent screaming “The dingo’s got my baby”. On Friday, Australia’s longest and most notorious legal saga will come full circle when a coroner is asked to rule that a dingo really was responsible for the baby’s death.
Mrs Chamberlain – or Lindy Creighton-Chamberlain, as she is now known – was convicted in 1982 of murdering her nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, at Ayers Rock, now called Uluru. While a royal commission later exonerated her and her husband, Michael, whose convictions were subsequently quashed, the cause of Azaria’s death has never been officially established.
The Northern Territory coroner, Elizabeth Morris, agreed to hold another inquest – the fourth since 1981 – after the Chamberlains’ lawyers gave her a file of new evidence about dingo attacks on children. They include the fatal mauling of a nine-year-old boy, Clinton Gage, by two dingoes on Fraser Island, off the Queensland coast, in 2001.
It has been a long struggle by the couple, who divorced in 1991, to set the record straight. Mrs Creighton-Chamberlain, who served three years in prison, was released after Azaria’s matinee jacket was found near a dingo lair. Her husband had been given a suspended sentence for helping her to conceal the murder. But while their names were cleared long ago, they were frustrated by the most recent inquest, in 1995, which returned an open verdict.
A spate of attacks on children has reinforced their assertion – which few Australians believed at the time – that a dingo took Azaria. The couple’s solicitor, Stuart Tipple, today said that there had been 12 such attacks, three of them fatal, since 1995. Two toddlers died in separate attacks in 2005 and 2006 by pet dingo cross-breeds.
Mr Tipple said the Chamberlains’ main motive for seeking a new inquest finding was to save other parents from the agony they had endured after Azaria vanished. “They believe it’s very important to get that warning out there. They believe that if the appropriate finding had been made in 1995, some of these [subsequent] tragedies might not have happened.”
The couple have moved on since getting divorced. Mrs Chamberlain married Rick Creighton, an American publisher; the couple live in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. Mr Chamberlain also re-married, and lives in northern New South Wales. A retired teacher, he now writes books.
The case is so deeply embedded in the Australian consciousness that the National Museum in Canberra has a permanent exhibit devoted to it. Anthea Gunn, one of the curators, said that in 1980 only Australians in rural and Aboriginal communities knew that dingoes could and did kill people. “For most people, it was unheard-of,” she said. “We knew of spiders and crocodiles and snakes, but we didn’t think these adorable furry creatures would attack humans.”
Public suspicion about Mrs Chamberlain was heightened by her demeanour – she did not grieve openly – and by the couple’s association with the Seventh Day Adventist church, viewed as a fundamentalist sect. Mr Tipple said that even now some Australians would never stop believing that she was guilty.
The public reaction to the case inspired John Bryson to write a book, Evil Angels, on which a Hollywood film of the same title was based. “I wrote Evil Angels not about the Chamberlains, but about us,” he said yesterday.
Bryson believes that the new inquest, to be held in Darwin, will educate a younger generation about the case. “It’s also important because, in a sense, it’s a ‘sorry’ statement,” he said. “It’s saying [to the Chamberlains]: ‘We are sorry.’”