Day 878: A Dingo Took Your Baby?

originally published May 27, 2014

I generally avoid topics that have been made into major motion pictures starring Sam Neill and Meryl Streep, since I figure the story is already out there, and told in a much more thorough and entertaining way than I could tell it here. But some stories are too strange to ignore. And in this case, the 1988 film A Cry In The Dark was something of a box office bust, so I’ll assume there’s a ripe audience for this twisted tale.

The story takes place in Australia, a land where every living creature wants to kill you, and most have the ability to do so with ease. Nevertheless, Aussies are a resilient people, and they are often willing to go camping in the frothing throes of this ludicrously blood-lusty ecosystem. Michael and Lindy Chamberlain were two such Aussies.

They took a trip to Uluru, which was then known as Ayers Rock. Along with them were their two sons, Aidan and Reagan, and their 9-week-old daughter, Azaria. It was on the second night of their trip, August 17, 1980, when things went horribly wrong.

According to Lindy Chamberlain, her young daughter Azaria was taken from the family tent by a dingo. Though their name might suggest a fun-loving, cuddly cartoon creature, the dingo is actually a vicious predator and a major pain in the collective ass for Australian livestock farmers. They’re like wolves, but without the charm. There had been no reported incidents of a dingo scooping a small child from a tent, but it was possible – in fact, Derek Roff, the chief ranger at Ayers Rock, had been warning the government about the increasingly aggressive dingoes in his neighborhood for two years.

A huge search was organized, and the Chamberlains were a wreck. It took roughly a week for even the slightest lead to appear: Azaria’s jump suit. It was found about 4km from the camping site, with blood staining the area around the neck. All evidence appeared to point toward a late-night dingo attack, just as Lindy Chamberlain had claimed. Which made it all the more bizarre when a murder charge was flung at the missing child’s mother.

According to the Crown case, Lindy slit young Azaria’s throat in the front seat of the family car, then crammed her into their camera case. She then returned to the campfire, fed some beans to her sons and retired to the tent, where she let out the cry that Azaria had been taken. Hours later, while everyone else was out scouring the land, Lindy disposed of the body. There was no shadowy history of violence in Lindy’s past, no allegations of child abuse and not a soul to substantiate any suspicions that she might have hated her young daughter. In short, there was no case to be made.

Or was there? Lindy had claimed Azaria was wearing a matinee jacket over her jump suit, but that jacket wasn’t found. Also, there was apparently a trace of foetal hemoglobin (found only in babies six months and younger) in the front seat of the car. Not only that, but… actually, it looks like it’s only that. Somehow the prosecution was able to mount a case against this grieving and panic-flattened young mother based on evidence so circumstantial, it hardly seems like evidence at all.

Naturally, the verdict was guilty.

Sure, there were witnesses who claimed to have spotted dingoes wandering around the area that night. And yes, a nurse who was camping nearby claimed she heard the baby cry after the time when Lindy allegedly killed Azaria in the family car. Oh, and adult blood can test positive for foetal hemoglobin, that was proven as well. So can human mucous and even chocolate milkshakes. Expert testimony that dingoes can chew through material as strong as a seatbelt and can carry an animal as heavy as a kangaroo was tossed out.

What the hell is wrong with the Australian justice system? Lindy Chamberlain was convicted in October, 1982, while she was 8½ months pregnant with their second daughter. She was sentenced to life in prison, while Michael Chamberlain was convicted and handed a suspended sentence as an accessory after the fact for having helped Lindy cover up the murder. Such was the mind-set of this astoundingly dense jury – no dingo had come forward with a confession, so the humans were set ablaze.

Metaphorically, of course. Australia’s justice system wasn’t that messed up.

Then in early 1986, an English tourist named David Brett tried to scurry up Uluru one evening, but fell to his death. It was a tragedy, but it produced a very curious result. It took eight days for David’s remains to be discovered, and throughout the search a number of dingo lairs were found around the base of the rock. In one of those lairs lay the pivotal piece of evidence that had been missing from Lindy and Michael’s trial: Azaria’s matinee jacket.

The case was reopened right away, and Lindy was released and allowed to return to her family pending the investigation. If the physical presence of the missing jacket in a dingo den wasn’t enough, another test for foetal hemoglobin – this time on a ‘sound deadener’ that gets sprayed on every vehicle during its manufacture – came up positive. Turns out the chemical test that led to Lindy’s conviction was more than slightly flawed. Lindy and Michael were exonerated, and awarded $1.3 million for wrongful imprisonment. A small comfort after they’d spent close to $4 million in legal fees.

At least someone won after all this: the lucky lawyers.

The media blew this story up to O.J. proportions in Australia, and the story found its way into newscasts all over the world. People accused Lindy of not behaving like a proper grieving mother (as though there’s a guidebook she should have followed or something). Others felt that their religion, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, was in fact a cult that killed infants as part of their beliefs. Some believed Lindy to be a witch. The press went nuts, and while one might hope that the jury would have been sequestered without access to media, I honestly have no idea. The court of public opinion was certainly unkind to the Chamberlains.

A book by John Bryson, Evil Angels, was published in 1985, though since this would have been before that final piece of exonerating evidence was discovered, I’m curious as to how Lindy was depicted in the account. By the time it was adapted to the film, A Cry In The Dark, the truth was known and the Chamberlains had been vindicated.

One final inquest was performed in 2012. It was found without any doubt that Azaria Chamberlain had been killed by a dingo attack, and her death certificate was altered to reflect this. It’s a scary lesson – sometimes the most obvious truth still won’t set you free. Also, don’t go camping in a land where everything wants to kill you.

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