It’s one of those lines that we’ve all heard and even associate with laughs (thanks to Seinfeld, for one), but the story behind the punchline “Maybe the dingo ate your baby” is as dark and as real as it gets. Back in 1980 in Australia, a young family went camping in the outback.
Lindy and Michael Chamberlain’s baby girl, Azaria was pulled out from their tent by a dingo (a wild dog). Lindy apparently screamed the words, “A dingo ate my baby!” The case was devastating, the trial became famous, but only years later did the truth finally came out, thanks to an unexpected twist of fate.
Was It a Wild Dog or a Calculated Lie?
It was nighttime on August 17, 1980, at Australia’s infamous Ayer’s Rock when a mother’s howl echoed throughout the area. “My God, my God, the dingo’s got my baby!” The events of that fateful night led to a nation divided, people choosing between two sides. Was it a dingo who took the baby or was it “a calculated, fanciful lie,” as the prosecutor put it?
Azaria was only 10 weeks old when her parents took her with them on a camping trip that summer. It’s a questionable choice, considering the August heat in Australia can be dry and hard to handle.
A Family of Five Headed for a Camping Trip
Nonetheless, the Chamberlains left their home in Queensland, Australia, on August 13, and set out for a trip to the country’s natural wonder. At the time, Michael was minister at their hometown Mount Isa’s Seventh Day Adventist Church.
He and Lindy, his wife of ten years, were looking forward to some time off with their three kids, six-year-old Aidan, four-year-old Reagan, and 10-week-old Azaria. On their first morning at Ayers Rock, Michael and the boys went climbing. Meanwhile, Lindy carried Azaria around a formation called Fertility Cave. It was there that she got her first glimpse at one of the nation’s wild animals: a dingo.
The Dingoes Make Their Presence Known
From that moment, she later told a detective, she had a feeling that the wild dog was “casing the baby.” That night, the Chamberlains and other campers sat around the campfire. Another couple, Greg and Sally Lowe, were also there with an infant.
At one point in the evening, Sally walked to the garbage can to throw out some leftovers and noticed a dingo following her, only four or five paces back. Michael was even humoring his son Aiden by tossing some bread crusts to a dingo near them. Lindy told her husband, “You shouldn’t encourage them.”
The Calm Before the Storm
Just then, the dingo pounced on a mouse that Aiden had been chasing. Lindy decided to put Azaria down for the night in the tent. Reagan, the four-year-old, was already asleep in the tent. Ten minutes later, leaving her son and baby girl sleeping in the tent, Lindy rejoined the others.
Soon enough, a baby’s cry sent Lindy racing back to the tent. That’s when the entire campsite heard the cry they would never forget. “My God, My God, the dingo’s got my baby!” The police were immediately called to the scene. Frank Morris was the first to arrive.
“The Dingo Has Our Bubby in Its Tummy”
Morris shined a light into the Chamberlain’s tent and saw blood on one of the rugs they had put on the floor of the tent. He also noticed paw prints leading out of the tent, which faded as they hit a road. Meanwhile, Aiden showed Sally the empty bassinet, crying, “The dingo has our Bubby in its tummy.”
It didn’t take long for all the campers at the site to search the premises with flashlights, heading into the dark brush surrounding them. Close to 300 people formed a human chain to search for tracks or any pieces of clothing.
Michael, the Minister, Had No Hope
Michael didn’t join the chain of searchers because he had already assumed the worst. Reportedly, he and Lindy were told by police to stay where they were, but this was later interpreted as a callousness about their daughter’s vanishing.
Solemnly, he told another camper, “She’s probably dead now.” In the same breath, he also told the camper something strangely unrelated: “I am a minister of the gospel.”
Azaria was never found. The searchers were able to find dingo tracks, but nothing more. A tourist by the name of Murray Haby was not part of the human chain, but he found something.
A Depression in the Sand
He had followed the tracks of a large dingo under a sand ridge, locating a depression in the sand where the dog seemed to have laid something down that he was carrying. Haby called out to one of the investigators, ranger Derek Hoff, and native tracker, Nuwe Minyintiri, to have a look.
There was an imprint in the sand which looked like it could have been a knitted weave or something similar. They continued to look for more tracks but found nothing. The four investigators assigned to the case relocated to a nearby motel to gather their insights.
Could It Really Have Been the Dingo?
Investigator Michael Gilroy accepted Lindy and Michael’s story, that the dingo took the baby. Morris, however, had yet to voice his opinion. John Lincoln, the fourth lawman, wasn’t buying the dingo story. “Not a chance. Never happened before. There’s a fact you can’t beat. Never ever happened,” Lincoln had said.
Gilroy agreed that there had been no known fatal dingo attacks before, but he mentioned that there had been a series of recent dingo attacks on children in the park. Still, Lincoln scoffed at the idea of a dog snatching and carrying around a ten-pound baby for hundreds of yards.
A Week Later, a Discovery
The detective then aimed to prove his point. He went out to get a pail, filled it with ten pounds of sand, and carried it in his mouth, but only managed for less than a minute. Lincoln then challenged the others to the same task. Although it wasn’t reported, chances are they didn’t last much longer than Lincoln.
One week after the incident, photographer Wally Goodwin set out for Ayers Rock with plans to take photos of the wildflowers. As he was walking along an animal path, he stumbled upon some shredded clothes lying near a boulder…
Let the Theories and Suspicions Begin
He looked closely and understood he was looking at a torn diaper and jumpsuit. Goodwin reported it to Constable Morris, who came to collect the evidence. Soon, Detective-Sergeant Graeme Charlwood took over the case and from then on, suspicious information and questionable theories were raised.
For one, it was reported that when Lindy had previously brought her baby in for a medical checkup, Azaria was dressed in all black. The examining doctor, who was curious about the name “Azaria,” looked it up in a Dictionary of Names book, learning that it meant “Sacrifice in the Wilderness.” Apparently, it also means “Whom God Aids.”
Investigators Start to Build a Case for Murder
All over the country, investigators conducted experiments to test Lindy’s account of her baby’s disappearance. Blood, vegetation, and hair samples from Azaria’s clothing were examined. Dingoes in the Ayers Rock area were shot and then dissected by veterinarians hoping to find human bone or human protein.
At a wildlife reserve, dingoes were tossed meat wrapped in a baby’s diaper so they could be compared to that of Azaria’s. Eventually, investigators started building a case for murder. More and more people were starting to think that maybe a dingo never took the baby.
Victims of Satanic Panic
The media only fueled suspicions that the Chamberlains killed their baby. The motive? Maybe it was a religious sacrifice. Lindy and Michael had to face years of torment as the government built a murder case against Lindy. As it turns out, it was all based on false evidence and a complete disregard of witness statements.
The Chamberlains were unfortunate scapegoats of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, which apparently didn’t only take place in America. Lindy and Michael were called murderers, child bashers, and even Satan worshippers. As if losing a child wasn’t difficult enough.
The Rumors Ran Wild
Newspapers at the time reported what amounted to rumors about the Chamberlains being somehow linked to the Jonestown mass suicide that occurred two years earlier. There was also the rumor that Azaria was killed to atone for sins of the Seventh-day Adventist church (the church was quite misunderstood in the country).
Many people concluded that the couple’s demeanor simply didn’t match what they would expect from a couple that had just lost a child. In early October of the same year, Sgt. Charlwood conducted hours-long interviews with Lindy and Michael separately.
Hypnotism? The Church Would Never Allow That
In his questioning, Charlwood suggested that Lindy be hypnotized in an effort to reveal additional details. Her reaction raised his eyebrows, so to speak.
Lindy rejected the idea immediately, saying, “The church wouldn’t allow it and I wouldn’t do it. God slew Saul for that. Do you know Saul and the Witch of Endor?”
In December 1980, the inquiries began, and the case was made that the baby’s clothes were put in place, not dragged by a dingo. They claimed the clothes showed signs of being removed from by a human – that the damage to the clothes was inconsistent with damage caused by a dingo.
Good and Bad News
On the contrary, coroner Dennis Barritt concluded that, after examining the evidence, Azaria “met her death when attacked by a wild dingo whilst asleep in her family’s tent.” He underlined that neither of the parents was “in any degree whatsoever responsible for her death.”
Sounds like good news for the Chamberlains, right? Well, not quite. Despite all that, Barritt was still convinced that “the body of Azaria was taken from the possession of the dingo and disposed of by an unknown method, by a person or persons name unknown.”
New Evidence, New Twist
In September 1981, the Chamberlains’ home was searched, including the family car, a yellow Torana. Charlwood had told Lindy that the search was partly due to the findings of British forensic expert James Cameron, who concluded that no dingo had been involved in her disappearance.
Lindy responded to him coolly: “I didn’t know there were any dingo experts in London.” By November, new evidence was found, and the inquiries into the incident went even deeper. Reportedly, large quantities of blood in the Chamberlain’s car were found. Now it was believed that Lindy killed her daughter in their car with a sharp instrument, maybe a pair of scissors.
Lindy Gets Charged With Murder
Cameron, the “Dingo expert,” testified that the tear found on the baby’s jumpsuit could not have come from a dingo: “It’s more consistent with scissors.” Then, a biologist named Joy Kuhl claimed that she found fetal blood beneath the passenger seat of the Torana.
While the first inquest was about dingoes, the second was about blood. In the end, the judge was convinced. Lindy Chamberlain was charged with murder. Michael was charged as being an accessory after the fact.
Lindy Faces the Trial Pregnant
There was no body, no motive, and no eyewitness, and yet, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were charged with the death of their daughter. By September 1982, when the trial began, Lindy was pregnant with another girl.
The prosecution argued that Azaria “died very quickly because somebody had cut her throat” and that the dingo attack story was “a fanciful lie, calculated to conceal the truth.” Remember fellow camper Sally Lowe? She gave as much support for the defense as she did for the prosecution.
Words From the Witnesses
Lowe said Lindy was away from the barbecue – where they were sitting together – for only “six to ten minutes.” In other words, that would be a very short amount of time to commit a murder and dispose of a body.
Lowe then ruined the defense’s case by insisting that she “heard the baby cry, quite a serious cry,” right before Lindy ran toward the tent. She said the cry “was suddenly cut off” and that it “definitely came from the tent.” She also recalled Lindy having “a new-mum glow about her” before the incident.
“Whatever Happens, It Is God’s Will”
Judy West, another camper present that night, testified that earlier that same night she was forced to shoo off a dingo that grabbed her 12-year-old daughter by the arm and pulled her. But then came Amy Whittaker, a witness who gave jurors reason to be against the Chamberlains.
Whittaker said that minutes after the alleged dingo attack, Michael appeared at the entrance of her camper and told her, “A dingo has taken our baby, and she is probably dead by now.” Whittaker also testified that Lindy told her, as she tried to console her, that “Whatever happens, it is God’s will.”
Damning Evidence: The Blood
Whittaker also recalled Lindy and Michael walking into the bush together for “fifteen to twenty minutes,” which the prosecution later argued might have been when they buried their baby. The prosecution relied heavily on convincing the jurors that the blood in the car belonged to Azaria.
The defense, however, provided a perfectly good reason for the blood. Keyth Lenehan was called to the stand. He was a bleeding hitchhiker whom the Chamberlains picked up a year prior, in 1979. The prosecution then tried to prove that Lenehan wasn’t carrying an unusually high level of fetal hemoglobin in his adult bloodstream.
Could a Dingo Fit a Head Into Its Mouth?
Biologist Joy Kuhl provided some of the most damning evidence. She claimed her tests proved that the blood on the dash support bracket in the car belonged to an infant. But she also admitted that all the plates she used in her blood tests “have been destroyed,” which was “standard procedure in our laboratory.”
Bernard Sims was an expert witness who investigated attacks by dogs on humans. He testified that a dingo attack would cause “copious” bleeding, and a baby’s head wouldn’t fit into the jaws of a dingo. Then, when the defense showed him a photo of a dingo holding the head of a baby-sized doll in his mouth, Sims admitted that he may have been mistaken.
Lindy Gets Called to the Stand
Eventually, Lindy was called to the stand. With tears streaming down her face, she described the clothing Azaria wore the last night she laid her down: “She had a white knitted Marquis jacket, with a pale lemon edging.”
After a long cross-examination, the prosecution said, “may I respectfully suggest to you that the whole dingo story is mere fantasy?” One defense forensic expert testified that a dingo would be most unlikely to “hang around” with its prey. (When a dingo kills in the field, it produces “very little” blood, and they characteristically shake their heads after taking prey “to break the neck.”)
Michael Gets Called to the Stand
Once Michael was called to the stand, he was interrogated about his actions in the first hours after Azaria’s disappearance. “Could it be because you knew that the dingo did not take her, and that she was dead at the hands of your wife?” the prosecution asked him.
“No, Mr. Barker,” Michael insisted. Those in the courtroom concluded that Michael’s testimony lacked spirit and was inappropriately nonchalant. After hours on the stand, he took a seat next to his wife and held her hands. At the end of the day, no motive was provided.
Life in Prison
“The prosecution has had two years and three months to think of a reason,” the defense stated; “they can’t.” When it came time for the jurors to deliberate, courtroom journalists thought there would be an acquittal.
But Lindy was indeed found guilty of murder, and Michael was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact. It was later discovered that the jury was initially more divided that its verdict indicated: four for conviction, four for acquittal, and four undecideds.
Lindy was sentenced to life in prison, but Michael’s sentence was suspended.
All She Got Was One Hour With Her Newborn
Their boys, Aidan, then 9, and Reagan, then 6, were heartbroken to hear their mom wasn’t coming home. But the boys weren’t the only ones who had to suffer from their mother being taken away. Let’s not forget that Lindy was about eight months pregnant when she was sentenced to life.
Kahlia was born two months into her sentence and the incarcerated mom was only given one agonizing hour to bond with her daughter before the baby girl was taken from her arms and placed into foster care. Aidan and Reagan continued to be raised by their father.
Life Without Mom
Michael and the boys were permitted to visit Lindy only three times a year. After a few years, an accident left Reagan with a shattered eye due to an exploding bottle. Lindy applied for dispensation to visit her son who was in a hospital bed for a month, but her request was denied.
“Dearest Reagan, how is mummy’s little pirate?” she wrote to her son from jail. “I’d love to be with you and give you a big cuddle. Try to be a brave, happy boy my darling. I love you very much, Mummy.”
The Boys Felt Crippling, Lasting Guilt
No less devastating was hearing what Reagan later revealed about the night he lost his baby sister. He said that he had felt the dingo walk across his chest as he went for Azaria in the tent. Both boys went on to suffer from a crippling guilt based on the belief that they could have done something to save her.
The boys wrote letters to judges, the Prime Minister and even the British royal family, begging for their mom to come home. “Dear Mr. Hawke,” Aidan wrote to Prime Minister Bob Hawke in his handwriting, “I cannot understand why you are keeping my Mummy in jail when I know she did not kill my baby sister Azaria. My Mummy loved Baby just as we all did, and I was with my Mummy and talking to her the hole [sic] time.”
The Boys Broke Down
In 1985, a TV station asked its viewers whether they thought Lindy should be released from jail. Aidan, then 11, rang the hotline 178 times to vote “yes.” The results showed that only 40 per cent of Australia agreed, after which the boy broke down.
“It was too much for him,” Michael recalled. “He went straight to bed, and I think he cried for about two hours.” A family friend described, “It was a broken family… I saw boys who were just devastated and in so much pain and out of control because they didn’t know what to do with it.”
A Twist of Fate Leads to Lindy’s Release
In the first years of Lindy’s sentence, new reports started casting doubt on the “scientific” evidence from the trial, which helped spur a “Free Lindy” movement. 100,000 Australians signed petitions calling for her release.
Finally, in 1986, by sheer coincidence, a hiker by the name of David Brett unintentionally succeeded in getting Lindy released from prison, although he wasn’t alive to see it. In January 1986, Brett fell off Ayer’s Rock during an evening climb and lost his life. Eight days later, his body was found in an area full of dingo lairs.
Azaria’s Missing Jacket Is Found
Police scoured the area for bones that might have been taken by the dingoes, which is when they discovered a baby’s white jacket. That’s right: it was Azaria’s missing matinee jacket, the one Lindy said she was wearing on the last night of her life.
During the trial, prosecutors were skeptical about the “missing matinee jacket,” but the proof was in the pudding. The Chief Minister finally ordered Lindy’s release from prison. On February 7, 1986, she got to reunite with her children.
A Long-Awaited Reunion
Lindy remembers the reunion as though it was yesterday. “We pull into the driveway and this kid came barreling up to me as soon as I heard the door,” Lindy said in a documentary about her story. “MUM!” Aidan yelled as launched himself at his mother, refusing to let go.
Reagan then hurled himself onto his mom’s back and wrapped and clung on just as tightly. It took a long time, until 2012, for Lindy to be entirely cleared of Azaria’s death, with an inquest finding that all evidence showed Azaria was indeed taken and killed by a dingo.
Meryl Streep Played Her in the Movie
Most of you have probably seen or heard of the movie A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep, which was based on this story. Lindy also wrote a book in 1990 called Through My Eyes, in which she called the movie 95% accurate and said that “no other actress would have been able” to play her better than Streep.
Lindy wrote in the last pages of her book, “And now we wait, we wait for the Northern Territory to pay us what they owe.”
A Dingo Really Did Eat the Baby
That day did come. Two years later, the Chamberlains received $1.3 million in compensation for wrongful imprisonment. In 2012, a fourth inquest was opened, which only further reiterated the fact that a dingo did take the baby.
Coroner Elizabeth Morris considered new evidence of dingo attacks on humans, including three fatal attacks on children. She wrote, “The evidence is sufficiently adequate, clear, cogent, and exact” to “exclude all other reasonable probabilities.” Lindy stated the obvious: “This battle to get the legal truth about what caused Azaria’s death has taken too long.”
People Still Aren’t Convinced
Lindy only hoped that her baby’s death sould convince Australians that dingoes are very dangerous animals. “We live in a beautiful country, but it is dangerous, and we would ask all Australians to take proper precautions,” Lindy wrote.
Azaria’s death certificate was ultimately changed from “unknown” to “dingo attack.” Sadly, many Australians still don’t believe it. Linda’s attorney, Stuart Tipple, said, “I could show them a video of the dingo taking the baby and it wouldn’t convince them.”
“They’re Guilty as Hell”
There was another movie about this story, called Evil Angels, from 1988 in which Sam Neill played Michael. Neill recently narrated the documentary Lindy Chamberlain: The True Story, which features insights and interviews with eyewitnesses, media, high court judges and family friends.
Neill said it was a “terrible miscarriage of justice” against Lindy Chamberlain. “More people should have been standing up and saying, ‘this is clearly wrong’,” Neil stated, slamming the Northern Territory police department, saying “They’re guilty as hell.”
Years of Blaming Himself
In the first episode of the docuseries, Lindy broke down when recalled the moment she learned Azaria was taken from the tent. She also revealed then that her son, Aiden, spent “years” blaming himself for it.
“We didn’t know that he’d blamed himself for not zipping up the tent,” she explained. “He didn’t realize that the zip was broken. But it would have made no difference, they [dingoes] were smart enough to get in.” Aiden, now in his 40s, spoke of his time away from their mother and how it had a lasting effect on him and his brother.
The public sent thousands of letters to Lindy: some cruel, some kind. Regardless of their sentiment, Lindy kept many of the letters that she read both from within prison walls and as a free woman.
“Lindy, you should be hung up to the nearest tree,” one read. “99.5% of the people know you are guilty.” Another read, “Murderer, murderer. You murdered the baby because it wasn’t normal.” People told her things like, “Your husband should divorce you and get a good woman as a wife, not a murderer.” Hopefully the Chamberlains found peace in the end…