Did a Dingo Really Get Her Baby? A Case Reopened

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A photo taken in August 1980 shows Lindy Chamberlain holding her daughter Azaria in Australia's Northern Territory

On the evening of Aug. 17, 1980, Lindy Chamberlain heard a cry coming from her tent. Lindy, her husband Michael and their three children were camping in Ayers Rock (now called Uluru) in Australia's Northern Territory. Lindy had put her 10-week-old daughter Azaria to sleep in their tent. After the cry, Lindy rushed back to check on her and saw a dingo leaving the area, clenching something in its jaws. Azaria was no longer in the tent, and Lindy screamed the now infamous line, "A dingo's got my baby!"

What followed was Australia's most famous saga, the subject of the 1988 film A Cry in the Dark. It's also a saga that's yet to come to a close. Lindy Chamberlain, whose version of events was initially believed, was later found guilty of killing Azaria after charges were pressed following a second inquest in 1981. Michael Chamberlain was found guilty of being an accomplice to murder. The evidence in that inquest was based on traces of fetal hemoglobin, which exists only in infants six months and younger, that were found in the Chamberlains' car and on Azaria's jumpsuit, which had blood around its collar and a human-size handprint.

In 1982, after exhausting all means of appeal, Lindy Chamberlain started her life sentence, always maintaining her innocence. Four years later, the 37-year-old mother's story was finally confirmed when a piece of Azaria's clothing was found, by chance, near a dingo den in Ayers Rock, and Lindy was released. The couple's convictions were overturned in 1988. But the evidence presented in the Chamberlains' first trial left a question mark that still hangs over their daughter's death. In 1995 a third coronial inquest into the case recorded an inconclusive finding, and Azaria's death certificate still lists the girl's cause of death as "unknown."

Now the Chamberlains are fighting for another chance at closure. Their lawyer, Stuart Tipple, has written to the Northern Territory coroner requesting that a fourth coronial inquest take place. The Melbourne Age reported that authorities in the Northern Territory were moving to establish the fourth inquest into Azaria's disappearance early next year. Michael Chamberlain declined to speak to TIME about the inquest until it is officially granted, but he scorned the third inquest on Australia's ABC News as being unsatisfactory. "By leaving it open, [then Northern Territory coroner John Lowndes] basically sullied the waters for us and turned it around and made us look like we might have been potentially guilty again," he said.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton (the couple has been divorced since 1991) hasn't commented on recent events. But in August, on the 30th anniversary of Azaria's disappearance, she wrote an open letter that appeared on her website demanding a change on the death certificate: "She deserves justice. In light of all the evidence before the Commission, this should be reflected on her death certificate and not the open finding that is there now."

The Chamberlains' lawyer is confident that if a fourth inquest takes place, it will be the final one. "It was unsatisfactory that the coroner provided an open finding in 1995," says Tipple. "Since then, there have been several more dingo attacks. It's beyond the balance of probability that Azaria was, in fact, taken by a dingo."

When Azaria disappeared, dingoes were considered menacing but not dangerous; in the early 1980s there were no well-known episodes of dingos attacking humans. On television, footage from the Chamberlains' trial was often accompanied by images of the wild dogs looking more affable than aggressive. Since 2001, however, there have been at least 56 reported incidents of dingo attacks on Fraser Island, in Australia's northeast, including the fatal mauling of a 9-year-old boy by two dogs in 2001. These incidents will be treated as new evidence, says Tipple. Michael Chamberlain also wants information on the mishandling of the original evidence in 1980 to be considered as new evidence.

At the time, the case divided Australia between those who believed Lindy Chamberlain was innocent and those who didn't. The Chamberlains belonged to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a religion few Australians then knew anything about, and whisperings that Lindy had killed Azaria in a ritual sacrifice were rampant. "There was this attitude of, 'We don't want weirdo religions telling us our bush is dangerous,' " says Deborah Staines, a Melbourne-based writer and academic who co-edited a book about the Chamberlain trial, The Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law, Memory.

The story captured imaginations across the Pacific too. Meryl Streep was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark, and the phrase "A dingo's got my baby" has been parodied on television shows including Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Family Guy. But in Australia, it's still taken seriously as a case of both prejudice and judicial failure. "After she was released, Australians had another uncomfortable period to add to their history," says Staines of Lindy. "Those that pointed the finger suddenly realized they were wrong. There was an enormous surge of guilt."