Eaten Alive?

A baby goes missing in the Oz outback

    Photo: Photograph by Dan Winters

"I won't talk about what happened on that night," says Lindy Chamberlain, 58, whose 1982 trial for the murder of her two-month-old daughter, Azaria, was the O.J.-esque media spectacle of its day in Australia. "I'm not going to put myself through that trauma anymore."

Lindy's now infamous cry for help—"A dingo's got my baby!"—has spawned a thousand headlines since August 17, 1980, the night Azaria disappeared from the family's tent near Ayers Rock, in the outback of the Northern Territory. Lindy had returned from their campfire to see a dingo in the open doorway of the tent, shaking something in its mouth. Inside, the baby's crib was empty, and there was a pool of blood on the floor. An initial search of the area yielded only a few marks in the dirt, possibly the trail of a dingo dragging a baby, and a week later, pieces of Azaria's clothing were found by a tourist.

Though an initial inquest found that the baby had likely been taken by a wild dog, a flawed investigation resulted in murder charges against Lindy and her husband, Michael, in 1982. To the shock of many, Lindy was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. (Michael was convicted of being an accessory to the murder but was never imprisoned.) She spent three years in jail before the case was reopened in 1986, after Azaria's sweater—which the prosecution had insisted never existed but which Lindy had sworn she was wearing—was discovered near the base of Ayers Rock in an area full of dingo lairs. Lindy was released, and a royal commission was convened, eventually exonerating her. In 1992, she received a settlement of nearly US$1 million for wrongful imprisonment.

Case closed, right? Well, sort of. When the final inquest into Azaria's death, in 1995, resulted in an "open finding," the case was left officially unsolved, prompting further imaginative speculation. Author Buck Richardson's 2002 book Dingo Innocent suggests that four-year-old Reagan Chamberlain, who'd gone to sleep in the tent with Azaria and whose parka was stained with Azaria's blood, killed his baby sister. In 2004, a 78-year-old Melbourne man named Frank Cole came forward with a claim that he'd shot a dingo with a baby in its mouth while on an August 1980 hunting trip with two friends near Ayers Rock. Fearing they would get in trouble for killing the dingo, he said, one of the friends buried the baby's body in his garden in Melbourne. Both of Cole's companions are now dead, and the story was never corroborated. Most recently, in 2005, a 25-year-old woman came forward in the outback city of Alice Springs saying she was Azaria Chamberlain, a claim that has since been dismissed.

Lindy, who was divorced from Michael in 1991 and has remarried, doesn't pay much attention to such theories and is even optimistic that the case, which is now studied by law students, has yielded some positive changes in the Australian legal system. "There is no mystery," she says. "All the answers have been filled in."

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