On August 17, 1980, a woman named Lindy Chamberlain reported to the police that her nine week old baby daughter Azaria had been taken by a dingo (ie a wild dog) from the tent where she and her family had been holidaying in a campsite near Ayers Rock (Uluru) in Australia’s Northern Territory.
The events of the resulting Azaria Chamberlain case, in which Chamberlain was ultimately convicted of the murder of her daughter, and the conviction was later quashed after the forensic evidence was completely discredited, are epochal and notorious in the country’s psyche. There are occasional media and news events when a whole nation is watching. What they are and will be is sometimes hard to predict, and it’s sometimes hard to tell just why everybody is watching, but this was one of those cases where people were watching because of the bizarre quality of the case and the luridness of the allegations. And as nothing has ever really been settled, the case has lingered on in the media in the 24 years since. Despite various claims, most people (including myself) have been of the belief that we would never see definite evidence as to exactly what happened.
At least, not until this week. As it happens, a story that has been told this week that may or may not be true (although once some excavations have taken place we will know), but which is almost as strange as the original events, and which would (if true) explain all the facts. Although maybe it will be true and we still won’t have any definite proor, because four of the five people involved are dead, including those who would know the location of the body. So perhaps an old man has just made up a story.
But first, the background. After Mrs Chamberlain reported the loss of her baby to the police, a huge search took place, but the body of baby Azaria was never found. However, some of the baby’s clothes, in particular the jump-suit that she had been wearing at the time of the attack, was found. At a subsequent inquest, it was determined that in the state it was in, the suit could not have been ripped off the baby by the dingo, and that it would have had to have been removed by a person. The inquest came to the curious conclusion that the baby had been taken and killed by a dingo, and that the body had been later disposed of “by person or persons unknown”.
This was a curious and unsatisfactory finding, and in the belief that additional evidence had been found, the relevant coroner’s office reopened the case later that year, and a second inquest took place. Evidence was presented that bloodstains had been found on the floor of the Chamberlain’s car, and that the car had been used to dispose of the body after Lindy Chamberlain had killed her own daughter. It was ultimatelly ruled that sufficient evidence had been found for a prosecution, and in 1982 Lindy Chamberlain was put on trial for murder.
At this point, all kinds of allegations flew around Australia. Michael Chamberlain was a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist church, which was not a religion most Australians knew much about, and strange stories went around about blood rituals and other goings on in this in fact fairly inoffensive church. Lindy Chamberlain had been calm and collected after losing her baby, and had later sold her story to a women’s magazine, which somehow wasn’t “appropriate behaviour” in the circumstances. (Hysterics and crying would presumably have been better). In any event, the case went to trial, and Lindy Chamberlaiin was convicted of murder, and spent four years in prison.
However, as the years went on, it became clearer and clearer that the evidence against her (which had been mostly circumstantial in the first place) was weak. There was a question of motive, and there was no body, and there were obvious defences that were actually not used in the trial but one thinks would have been if the Chamberlains were lying. (“So what if there was blood in the car. Azaria had a nose bleed on the way to the camp site”). Eventually, the forensic lab that had supposedly identified the blood was demonstated to be completely incompetent and it seems now more likely that it was red paint (yes, really). Azaria Chamberlain was released from prison, and evntually her conviction was overturned and she was paid compensation. Her marriage to Michael Chamberlain collapsed at some point, but since then she has remarried and got on with her life.
And that is where the case has rested for the more than a decade. In Australia the story has come up in the media from time to time. Every now and then some suggestion as to what happens will come up, or there will be a report of a dingo attacking another child (but being fended of by the child’s parents) or similar, strengthening people’s beliefs that Lindy Chamberlain’s story of the dingo was true. That is certainly my own feeling. At the time of the trial (I was 13 at the time) I professed to not caring, as a reaction against the extent of the media coverage, and I didn’t pay enough attention. A few years later I came round to the view that I didn’t know what had happened but that Lindy Chamberlain had clearly been denied her presumption of innocence, and the case against her had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt. I few years after that I discovered that I in fact completely believed her, and that I believed that the baby had been taken by a dingo (as I still do).
In 1988 a film was made about the case, directed by an Australian but starring an American (Meryl Streep) and produced by a British company, and the case became well known around the world. Not in the all encompassing OJ sense it was known in Australia, but as one of those things that people might know about Australia. “Oh, there was that story about the baby and the dingo”. (For some reason, the even stranger story that Australia once lost a serving Prime Minister who went swimming and was never seen again is less well known). The story has sort of worked its way into global popular culture. There have been references to it in The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and various other places.
Which was where we were this week. Australia was going through one of its periods where it remembered the incident. A second dramatisation of the story has been made for Australian television, this one starring Miranda Otto (most famous internationally for playing Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings but very well known on Australian television in Australian movies prior to that). A television program had coaxed Lindy Chamberlain into doing an interview for what is believed to be a substanial sum of money. And then this week the extraordinary story came out. A 78 year old man from Melbourne named Frank Cole has stated that he and four friends were shooting for dogmeat at Uluru on August 17, 1980. One of them shot a dingo, and discovered the body of a human baby in its mouth. They were shocked by this, but were reluctant to go to the police, because shooting (and having a dog) in a National Park was illegal.
The friends separated, and drove back to Melbourne, and Mr Cole states that he does not know what happened to the body. One of his friends may have buried it anywhere between Uluru and Melbourne, which is a very long way. There is some thought that one of his friends may have buried it in his back yard in Melbourne. It may be that excavations will take place shortly to determine if Azaria’s remains are there. Certainly the rest of the story will be investigated, and Mr Cole and his late friends will no doubt be investigated to see if the rest of the story matches, if they were indeed at Uluru at that time, and if perhaps the location of the remains of the body can be determined.
If indeed the story is true. It could be a complete fabrication. In combination with the dingo story in the first place it is just so weird that one almost thinks it is true. And if it is true, Mr Cole and his friends allowed a tremendous injustice to take place, which they could have prevented at any time by coming clean about their story.