Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Rumours and lies fed dingo case

Christchurch-born Michael Chamberlain at the final inquest and (left) Lindy Chamberlain with Azaria in 1980. The couple later divorced. Picture / Getty Images.
Christchurch-born Michael Chamberlain at the final inquest and (left) Lindy Chamberlain with Azaria in 1980. The couple later divorced. Picture / Getty Images.

Michael Chamberlain clearly remembers the moment he knew the police were out to prove his wife - and not a dingo - killed their baby daughter.

He and Lindy were initially supported after 9-week-old Azaria went missing from a tent near Uluru in central Australia in 1980.

Lindy had insisted a dingo had taken Azaria, and there was blood on the tent and dingo tracks nearby.

But several days later a reporter told the Chamberlains that he found their composure suspicious. Soon afterwards, a police detective told Michael Chamberlain in an interview what he now identifies as "the first great lie".

"He put it to me that Azaria's clothing was found folded and placed in the crevice of a rock. Now, he lied. And that was the first great lie," Chamberlain said.

A hostile media, fed further false information by police, soon had the couple marked as murderers by much of Australia.

Lindy's cry after she saw the dingo leaving the family tent became the butt of jokes and the phrase "a dingo took my baby" came to be equated with a flimsy excuse.

But the laughing stopped for good last month when a coroner concluded that evidence proved a dingo or dingoes were responsible for Azaria's death.

Michael Chamberlain, who was born in Christchurch, has now released a book about the ordeal, Heart of Stone, which outlines the case and his battle for last month's ruling.

He told the Weekend Herald that the book's title referred to Northern Territory authorities at the time, who he believes pressured police to build a case against him and Lindy.

"There are questions that need to be answered by the people who were behind this whole thing. I know that they know who they are. But they ain't talking.

"If they can offer me an apology, I can accept that. But if they don't offer me an apology, how much harder is it to forgive people?"

The first coronial inquest into Azaria's disappearance in 1980-81 ruled a dingo the likely cause of her death. The coroner criticised some police and members of the public for what he called a prejudiced view against the couple in the televised findings.

But in 1981 a new inquest and subsequent trial followed, which convicted a heavily pregnant Lindy of murder and her husband of being an accessory.

Chamberlain said the fact that he was a minister in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, Lindy's choice of clothes, and even Azaria's name were "grist to the mill" in the public's view of their guilt.

Azaria was falsely rumoured to translate from Hebrew as "sacrifice in the wilderness" rather than "blessed of God".

But it was the prosecution's presentation of forensic evidence to show that blood was found in the Chamberlains' car which was critical.

People threatened to kill the couple and spat on Lindy as she walked into the court. It was only later that the "blood" was discovered to be a mixture of spilt milkshake and a chemical spray.

"At the time it was sensational. And again - lie upon lie," Chamberlain said.

In 1986, the chance discovery of Azaria's matinee jacket reopened the case. The Chamberlains were pardoned and their convictions quashed. A third inquest in 1995 returned an open finding with the cause of death unknown.

Chamberlain said he and others were now carefully awaiting the outcome of Britain's Leveson Inquiry into media ethics.

He said there were parallels with the way media interacted with those in power during coverage of Azaria's disappearance.

"It was a very clever and almost sensational method of bringing [us] to trial by media, and allowing the prosecution to have a dream run on us."

Chamberlain eventually left his ministry, did a PhD in education and wrote several history books. He is now retired from high school teaching and lives with his second wife, Ingrid, in New South Wales.

- NZ Herald

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