In what became perhaps the most famous missing person case in Australian history, nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain went missing from her family’s tent near Uluru, Northern Territory in the summer of 1980. Her mother, Lindy Chamberlain, later told investigators that she had seen a dingo leaving the tent before finding the baby’s bassinet empty, shouting for help with what has become one of the most recognised aspects of the case; her crying out ‘a dingo ate my baby!’ In reality the famous phrase appears to be a misquote, but nevertheless is has garnered enduring infamy in popular culture, both in Australia and worldwide.
Two years later, Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of the murder of her infant daughter, whose body has never been found. She was released from prison, alongside her husband Michael who had been convicted of accessory to murder, after new evidence came to light in 1986. The couple were officially exonerated in 2012, when a fourth inquest into the case found that a dingo had, in fact, been responsible for taking the baby.
In August 1980, parents Lindy and Michael Chamberlain traveled to Darwin, Northern Territory for a family holiday with sons Aidan and Reagan and infant daughter Azaria. Michael intended to fish for barramundi, while Lindy was set on revisiting Uluru, then known as Ayers Rock. The family planned to camp for three days close to the famous landmark before continuing on to Darwin itself. The couple later reported a number of encounters with dingos around the area of their camp, including feeding one that approached their camp a crust of bread. At around 8pm, Lindy put Azaria to bed in the tent before returning to site’s shared campfire. Shortly after the couple heard the baby cry out, prompting Lindy to return to her daughter.
Approaching the tent, Lindy spotted a dingo emerging from the doorway. Her view of the animal’s muzzle was obscured, but it appeared to be shaking its head vigorously. She then called out to her husband, in reality shouting ‘Michael, Michael, the dingo’s got my baby!’ rather than the common misquote. Despite an initial search by her parents and a later effort by police and professional trackers, Azaria was never found, although her bloodied jumpsuit, singlet and nappy were found around a week later.
Initially, Aboriginal trackers were used to attempt to follow the dingo trail, however they were unable to continue after the dingo crossed a road where its tracks were obscured by those of people and vehicles. An inquest by the Alice Springs coroner found that the baby had been taken by a wild dingo. However, this finding was later quashed by the Australian Supreme Court in December 1981, and Lindy was charged with Azaria’s murder.
The prosecution’s case theorised that in the ten-minute period where Lindy was absent from the campfire, she took Azaria from the tent to their nearby car, then used a pair of scissors to cut her daughter’s throat, hiding the body in a camera case. Much of the evidence for their case appeared circumstantial at best, including the prosecution’s line of explaining away the evidence that a dingo had entered the tent as purely good fortune on the part of Lindy, as was the fact that neither investigators nor fellow campers had noticed any blood on her clothing.
Several of their fellow campers appeared at the trial to give evidence, broadly supporting Lindy’s claim that a dingo had taken Azaria. Both her husband Michael and camper Sally Lowe stated that they had also heard a baby cry out when Lindy had been with them at the fireplace. Another camper, Judith West, testified that she had heard a low, menacing growl come from the direction of the Chamberlain’s tent.
A number of scientific witnesses were also put forward. Dr Andrew Scott testified that the spray marks of blood were consistent with a dingo carrying a bleeding baby, and that hairs found in the tent and on Azaria’s jumpsuit were of canine origin. The President of the Dingo Foundation gave his expert opinion that a dingo was capable of carrying a baby by the head for long distances (although a forensic expert disputed this claim).
Lastly, camper Max Whittacker testified that he had joined searchers including park rangers and a professional aboriginal tracker in following the trail of a dingo, with scrape marks suggesting that it had been carrying a heavy object, assumed to be the missing baby’s body. It later transpired that the account of the tracker himself had been denied by rangers and his version of events was not included in court proceedings. Claims that the jumpsuit, singlet and nappy that Azaria had been wearing were interfered with before being presented as evidence were also overlooked.
On 29th October 1982, Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty of the murder of her daughter, while Michael Chamberlain was convicted as an accessory to murder. Lindy was handed a life sentence, while Michael was given 18 months on remand.
On 2nd February 1986, the jacket Azaria had been wearing was found partially buried near to a known dingo lair close to Uluru. Five days later, Lindy was released from prison and her life sentence remitted. A subsequent Royal Commission ruled that the claim that Lindy had murdered Azaria had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. A third inquest recorded an open verdict in 1988.
The case was revisited in 2012, as Lindy and Michael pressed for a further inquest that would finally clear their names in full and prove that their daughter had been killed by a dingo. Coroner Elizabeth Morris pointed to new evidence in the years since that dingos can and will attack young children. A final ruling was made that a dingo had taken Azaria Chamberlain from her tent in August 1980, and an amended death certificate supplied to her parents acknowledged this fact.
As noted by the coroner, dingos have been responsible for a growing number of attacks on people, with at least 14 incidents recorded since the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, including a fatal attack on 9-year-old Clinton Gage in 2001. Last year, three serious attacks were recorded on children, in each case inflicting serious injuries that required the victims to be airlifted to hospital. While unproven, it has also been theorised that British tourist David Eason, who went missing on Fraser Island in 2001, may have been killed by dingos.