More than 30 years on, coroner will hear fourth inquest into 'Dingo Baby' death

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Australia's most baffling drama continues with reopening of the case in which a mother was condemned and then cleared

Sydney

The growl came first, low and throaty, piercing the darkness of the Australian desert. A baby's cry followed, then, abruptly, there was silence. Inside the tent, the infant girl had vanished. Outside, her mother was screaming: "The dingo's got my baby!" With those words of panic, the mystery of Azaria Chamberlain's disappearance in the Australian Outback in 1980 became the most notorious, divisive and baffling legal drama in the country's history. Had a wild dog really taken the baby? Or had Azaria's mother, Lindy, slit her daughter's throat and buried her in the desert?

Thirty-two years later, Australian officials hope, finally and definitively, to determine how Azaria died when the Northern Territory coroner opens a fourth inquest on Friday. Lindy Chamberlain, convicted of murdering her daughter and later cleared, is still waiting for the authorities to close the case that made her the most hated person in Australia.

The nightmare began on 17 August 1980, during a family vacation to Ayers Rock, the sacred Outback monolith. Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, their two sons and Azaria, nine weeks old, were settling in for the night at a campsite near the rock. Azaria was sleeping in a tent and Lindy and Michael were making dinner near by when a baby's cry rang out. Lindy went to check on her daughter and says she saw a dingo slink out of the tent and disappear into the darkness. Azaria's cradle was empty, the blankets still warm. There was an intense search, but Azaria was never found.

The Chamberlains insisted the dingo snatched their daughter. Outside the tent were dingo tracks; inside were spots of blood. Fellow campers told officials they had heard a low growl, then a baby's cry. Azaria's torn, bloodied jumpsuit was found in the desert near by. There was no motive, no witness, no body. But police and the public doubted a dingo was big or strong enough to drag away a 10lb baby. And without the DNA testing available today, the evidence looked damning. The dashboard in the Chamberlains' car was drenched in baby's blood, and a bloody hand print was found on Azaria's jumpsuit. Years later, more sophisticated tests determined the "blood" was a combination of spilled milk and a chemical sprayed during manufacture. The "hand print" was nothing of the kind; it was mostly red desert dust.

Australians didn't like the Chamberlains. Their religious affiliation – Seventh-day Adventist – was too weird, and Lindy was too calm. Her clothes, her nasal voice, her cool demeanour – it was all wrong for a grieving mother. Australians recoiled when she spoke of graphic evidence clinically and without tears. "They'll just peel it like an orange," she told one reporter, describing how a dingo slashes the skin of its prey. She began receiving death threats. People spat at her, howled like a dingo outside her house, called her a bitch, a witch and worse.

Lindy – heavily pregnant with her fourth child – was convicted of murder, accused of slashing her daughter's throat with nail scissors and making it look like a dingo attack. She was sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. Michael was convicted of being an accessory. Three years into Lindy's prison sentence, Azaria's jacket was found by chance – near a dingo den. Days later, Lindy was released from prison. A Royal Commission, the highest form of investigation in Australia, debunked much of the evidence used at trial and her conviction was overturned.

The turnaround stunned Australians. And, as the evidence shifted in favour of the Chamberlains, public guilt grew. Ten years ago, there was a series of dingo attacks on Australia's Fraser Island, including the fatal mauling of a nine-year-old boy.

Despite the change in public opinion, Azaria's death certificate remains incomplete. Three inquests have returned conflicting results. On Friday, Elizabeth Morris, the coroner for Northern Territory, will examine fresh evidence of dingoattacks before issuing a finding on Azaria.

Mrs Chamberlain declined an interview request but, in an open letter on the 30th anniversary of Azaria's disappearance, she wrote that she was fighting for her daughter. "Our family will always remember today as the day truth was dragged in the dirt and trampled upon but, more than that, it is the day our family was torn apart for ever because we lost our beautiful little Azaria," she wrote. "She deserves justice."

Perhaps no one exemplifies the shifting opinions, uncertainty and nagging guilt of Australians more than Yvonne Cain, one of the jurors who voted to convict Mrs Chamberlain. At first, she empathised with the woman on trial: her own son was bitten by a dingo when he was a baby.

But the prosecution evidence looked strong and the defence looked weak. When the verdict was given, she couldn't look at Mrs Chamberlain, and wept as she was sentenced.

"I'll never forget the judge saying that Lindy would be put into jail for life with hard labour," says Ms Cain, now 63 and living in the southern city of Adelaide. "I imagined her smashing rocks, like in the old days."

After the trial, she was shattered. Was she wrong? She daydreamed about smuggling Mrs Chamberlain out of jail. She grew convinced she had made a horrible mistake. Soon after Mrs Chamberlain's release, the two women met, in a moment captured on video. Ms Cain couldn't stop crying as she hugged the freed woman.

"Are you all right, now that it's all finished?" she asked. "It's not finished yet," Mrs Chamberlain replied.

The two are now friends. But Ms Cain still struggles with her conscience. The guilt will probably always plague her, she says. She believes it should plague all Australians who condemned Mrs Chamberlain. Because if the dingo is guilty, then so is Australia. "I never, ever got over it," Ms Cain says, her voice shaking. "I'm guilty for calling her guilty... I keep thinking back to the time when we were deliberating. If only – if only – I'd have said, 'No, I don't think she's guilty'. That woman was as innocent as you and me."

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