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How Azaria Chamberlain’s disappearance at Ayers Rock (Uluru) on August 17, 1980 divided Australia

Lindy Chamberlain has told how cruel strangers still taunt her with jibes about a dingo taking her baby daughter four decades after the newborn disappeared from a campsite in a case that split the nation.

Nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain vanished from a campsite near Ayers Rock, as Uluru was then known, on August 17, 1980.

Despite Ms Chamberlain’s spine-chilling scream of ‘a dingo’s got my baby!’, a court wrongly jailed the mother for murder in 1982 – only for her to be released in 1986 upon the sensational discovery of the baby’s yellow matinee jacket at the base of Uluru.

As Australia marks 40 years on Monday since Azaria went missing, the exonerated mother, now 72, said she still faces regular reminders about the disappearance.

Ms Chamberlain on Sunday night was asked whether Australians still have doubts about her innocence, even though a coroner ruled in 2012 a dingo was responsible.

‘Obviously they do, they tell me so at times,’ she told the Sunday Project. ‘It’s only about three weeks ago since I got my last dingo howls.’

She added she tried to block out the taunts when asked by co-host Lisa Wilkinson how she dealt with people bringing up her past.  

‘I pretty much ignore it. What’s the point? They’ve got the problem, not me?’ she said. 

Ms Chamberlain said she is rarely asked about her time in prison despite intense public interest in the case.  

‘Up until this mini-series, I’ve only ever done one interview on prison,’ she said.

‘And I often think, “Wow, there’s three years of my life and people want to know everything but are they scared of that topic or what?”

‘It was just like life was freeze-framed [in prison]. And then I got out and normal life continued.’

She last year told the ABC’s Anh’s Brush With Fame of the pain of losing her third child Azaria in 1980 and then having to give up another daughter, Kahlia, born in 1982 when she was jailed in Darwin as part of a life sentence.

‘I knew the minute she was born they were going to take her off me,’ she said.

‘Every moment of the birth, I fought it. It’s like, “you keep her inside, she’s yours – the minute she’s out, she’s not”.’  

Opinions were bitterly polarised on whether a dingo used its teeth to pull the baby girl from her yellow jacket on the night of August 17, 1980. 

Ms Chamberlain had a movie made about her, starring Meryl Streep.

The Hollywood star portrayed the horror of a 32-year-old mother-of-three returning to the family tent to find an empty bassinet, as her husband Michael, played by Sam Neill, stood around chatting with other campers.

‘The dingo’s got the baby,’ she screamed, in the role that saw her nominated for an Academy Award. ‘Please, God, help me. The dingo took my baby.’

The devout Seventh Day Adventist, in a panic, prayed to God momentarily, then chased the dingo into darkness.

Shocked campers scrambled for torches and in vain searched the desert campground for any sign of her daughter, as her six-year-old son Aidan watched the chaos by standing outside the tent.

That horrible Sunday evening would mark the start of her 32-year legal battle with the Northern Territory justice system to be completely exonerated.

Former NT chief minister Marshall Perron – the attorney-general who authorised her February 1986 release from jail – said he initially believed Mrs Chamberlain was guilty of murder following a 1982 jury trial.

‘I accepted that at the time, as I guess most people did, until such time as the jacket was found at the base of Ayers Rock,’ he told Daily Mail Australia about ‘the most covered case in Australia’.

He signed the papers letting her walk free after that yellow matinee jacket, Mrs Chamberlain had described to a jury, was found where a dead British tourist had slipped and fallen from Uluru. 

‘Certainly within a couple of days, maximum, she was out of jail and I had a role in that,’ Mr Perron said.

‘I can simply say that I accept completely that what I believe today is that she was never guilty of the crime that she was charged with and it was a monstrous miscarriage of justice.’ 

Until Azaria’s disappearance there were few, if any, documented cases of dingoes killing children.

Opinion polls taken after she was jailed showed three-quarters of Australians regarded her as being guilty.

Making things worse, Mrs Chamberlain and her pastor Michael Chamberlain were practising Seventh Day Adventists, both born in New Zealand, who attended church on Saturday instead of Sunday like other regular Christians.

This sparked false rumours Azaria meant ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’.

Mr Perron said her misunderstood religious faith was a factor in public opinion being against her.

‘A lot of that, particularly in the early days, was people justifying why they felt that she was guilty – it was demeanour, the name Azaria, the Seventh Day Adventist and there are probably even other odd theories floated at the time,’ he said. 

In a memorable scene from Streep’s Evil Angels movie, set in 1981, coroner Denis Barrett, played by veteran TV actor Maurie Fields, addressed those false theories and concluded a dingo took the baby – but added a human disposed of the body.

‘They’ve been subjected to rumour and innuendo and the most malicious gossip this nation has ever seen,’ he said. 

The NT’s Supreme Court didn’t agree and within 18 months, she faced a jury. 

Veteran photographer Clive Hyde, who covered her 1982 murder trial for the Northern Territory News, said the situation was so nasty people would gather outside the old Darwin courthouse to shout abuse at the defendant, who was heavily pregnant.

‘There were some instances outside the court – I recall two women standing outside obviously objecting to “the dingo took my baby” and yelling out when they came in,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.

‘It became a bit of a circus. 

‘Lindy turned up, right from the start, very well groomed, very well dressed, so did Michael, they carried themselves pretty well considering the world’s media were focusing on them.

‘They never looked flustered, they maintained a very straight persona but probably is one of the things that brought them undone and people thought “hard-faced b**ch”. 

‘Because of their religious beliefs, people thought there might have been something a little bit sinister.’

A day before the trial, her legal team invited him to photograph the couple at the Travelodge Hotel in Darwin, with the curtains drawn.

‘I was one of the photographers – there were two pool photographers allowed – into the old Travelodge the day before the trial, I was shooting black and white,’ Mr Hyde said.

‘We were escorted into a room that was dark with all the curtains across.’ 

This image, which ran in Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited newspapers, gave the impression she was cold.

‘Lindy and Michael were sitting in two separate chairs apart from each other – a bit like a COVID-19 distancing – and they were not to say anything,’ Mr Hyde said.

‘They were the most boring photographs you’d ever come across, which was probably one of their first mistakes.

‘They could have been and should have been holding hands – I’m not saying sitting by the pool on a deckchair – all I’m saying is it could have been a little bit softer than what their legal team thought looked good.

‘In actual fact, it looked bloody awful.’ 

Inside the courtroom, a jury was convinced she was guilty, believing the flawed forensic evidence that the sound proofing material under the dashboard of the family’s Holden Torona family car contained foetal blood. 

A royal commission exonerated her of murder in 1988, the same year Evil Angels, marketed as A Cry in the Dark in the US, was released at the box office.

But it wasn’t until June 2012 that an NT coroner finally concluded a dingo was responsible for taking nine-week old Azaria from a camp ground near Uluru – leading to less abuse since then.

‘Things gradually change,’ a remarried Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton said in 2014.

‘Until that came out categorically in a court, a lot of people felt like I still wasn’t exonerated.’ 

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