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Azaria Chamberlain disappearance

Azaria Chantel Loren Chamberlain (born 11 June 1980 in Mount Isa, Queensland) was a ten-week-old Australian baby who disappeared on the night of 17 August 1980 on a camping trip to Uluru with her family.

Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, reported that she had been taken from their tent by a dingo. An initial inquest, highly critical of the police investigation, supported this assertion. The findings of the inquest were broadcast live on television — a first in Australia. Subsequently, after a further investigation and second inquest, Azaria's mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was tried and convicted of her murder, on 29 October 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Azaria's father, Michael Chamberlain, was convicted as an accessory after the fact and given a suspended sentence.

The media focus for the trial was extraordinarily intense and sensational. The Chamberlains made several unsuccessful appeals, including the final High Court appeal. After all legal options had been exhausted, the chance discovery of a piece of Azaria's clothing in an area full of dingo lairs led to Lindy Chamberlain's release from prison, on "compassionate grounds." She was later exonerated of all charges. While the case is officially unsolved, the report of a dingo attack is generally accepted. Recent deadly dingo attacks in other areas of Australia have strengthened the case for the dingo theory.

The story has been made into a TV movie, a feature film, a TV miniseries and an opera by Moya Henderson (Lindy). There have also been numerous books written about the case.

Disappearance and subsequent discovery

Pastor Michael Chamberlain, his wife Lindy, their two sons, Aidan and Reagan, and their newborn daughter, Azaria, left their home in Mount Isa for a camping and sightseeing trip to various Northern Territory landmarks, including Ayers Rock. They arrived on the evening of Saturday, 16 August 1980.

On the night of 17 August, Lindy Chamberlain raised the alarm that a dingo had just been seen leaving the family tent and that Azaria, who had been sleeping in her bassinette, was missing. Three hundred people formed a human chain during the night and searched the sand dunes near the campsite, but Azaria was never found.

One week later, a tourist from the state of Victoria, Wally Goodwin, discovered Azaria's heavily blood-stained jumpsuit, singlet, booties and nappy near a dingo lair. Goodwin was later to state that when he found the clothing, he did not touch it, but called a police officer. The officer immediately handled the jumpsuit, pulling out the singlet and booties that were still inside it. When Goodwin expressed concern that the evidence should not be handled, the officer put the booties and singlet back into the jumpsuit and contacted a superior officer.

Coroner's inquests

The initial coronial inquest into the disappearance was opened on 15 December 1980 before magistrate Denis Barritt. On 20 February 1981, in the first live telecast of Australian court proceedings, Denis Barritt reported that the likely cause was a dingo attack. In addition to this finding, Mr. Barritt also concluded that subsequent to the attack, "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."

The Northern Territory Police and prosecutors were unsatisfied with this finding. Investigations continued, leading to a second inquest which was held in September 1981. Based on ultraviolet photographs of Azaria's jumpsuit, Dr James Cameron of the London Hospital Medical College alleged that "there was an incised wound around the neck of the jumpsuit – in other words, a cut throat," and that there was an imprint of the hand of a small adult on the jumpsuit, visible in the photographs.

Following this and other findings, the Chamberlains were charged with Azaria's murder and taken into custody.

Case against Lindy Chamberlain

The Crown alleged that Lindy Chamberlain had cut Azaria's throat in the front seat of the family car, hiding the baby's body in a large camera case. She then, according to the proposed reconstruction of the crime, rejoined the group of campers around a campfire and fed one of her sons a can of baked beans, before going to the tent and raising the cry that a dingo had taken the baby. It was alleged that at a later time, while other people from the campsite were searching, she disposed of the body.

The key evidence supporting this allegation was the jumpsuit, as well as a highly contentious forensic report claiming to have found evidence of foetal haemoglobin in stains on the front seat of the Chamberlains' 1977 Torana hatchback. Foetal haemoglobin is present in infants six months and younger, and Azaria Chamberlain was nine weeks old at the time of her disappearance.

Lindy was questioned about the garments that the baby was wearing. She claimed that the baby was wearing a jacket over the jumpsuit, but the jacket was not present when the garments were found. She was questioned about the fact that the baby's singlet, which was inside the jumpsuit, was inside out. She insisted that she never put a singlet on her babies inside out and that she was most particular about this. This statement conflicted with the state of the garments when they were collected as evidence. The garments had been arranged by the investigating officer for a photograph.

In her defence, eyewitness evidence was presented of dingoes having been seen in the area on the evening of 17 August 1980. All witnesses claimed to believe the Chamberlains' story. One witness, a nurse, also reported having heard a baby's cry after the time when the prosecution alleged Azaria had been murdered. Evidence was also presented that adult blood also passed the test used for foetal haemoglobin, and that other organic compounds can produce similar results on that particular test, including mucus from the nose, and chocolate milkshakes, both of which had been present in the vehicle where the baby was allegedly murdered.

Engineer Les Harris, who had conducted dingo research for over a decade, said that, contrary to Cameron's findings, a dingo's carnassial teeth can shear through material as tough as motor vehicle seat belts. He also cited an example of a captive female dingo removing a bundle of meat from its wrapping paper and leaving the paper intact. His evidence was rejected, however.

Evidence to the effect that a dingo was strong enough to carry a kangaroo was also ignored. Also ignored was the removal of a three-year-old girl by a dingo from the back seat of a tourist's motor vehicle at the camping area just weeks before, an event witnessed by the parents.

An Aboriginal man gave evidence that his wife had tracked the dingo and found places where it had put the baby down, leaving the imprint of the baby's clothing in the soil. This evidence was discounted, because the man spoke on behalf of his wife, but in the first person, according to Aboriginal custom.

The defence's case was rejected by the jury. Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder on 29 October 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. Michael Chamberlain was found guilty as an accessory to the murder, and was given an 18-month suspended sentence.

Appeals

An appeal was made to the High Court in November 1983. Asked to quash the convictions on the ground that the verdicts were unsafe and unsatisfactory, in February 1984 the Court refused the appeal by majority. The mixed findings of the judges, however, gave encouragement to the Chamberlains' supporters.

Release and acquittal

The final resolution of the case was triggered by a chance discovery. In early 1986, English tourist David Brett fell to his death from Uluru (known as Ayers Rock at the time) during an evening climb. Because of the vast size of the rock and the scrubby nature of the surrounding terrain, it was eight days before Brett's remains were discovered, lying below the bluff where he had lost his footing, in an area full of dingo lairs. As police searched the area, looking for missing bones that might have been carried off by dingoes, they discovered a small item of clothing. It was quickly identified as the crucial missing piece of evidence from the Chamberlain case—Azaria's missing matinée jacket.

The NT Chief Minister ordered Lindy's immediate release, and the case was reopened. On 15 September 1988, the NT Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously overturned all convictions against Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. The exoneration was based on a rejection of the two key points of the prosecution's case—particularly the alleged foetal haemoglobin evidence—and of bias and invalid assumptions made during the initial trial.

The questionable nature of the forensic evidence in the Chamberlain trial, and the weight given to it, raised concerns about such procedures and about expert testimony in criminal cases. The prosecution had successfully argued that the pivotal haemoglobin tests indicated the presence of foetal haemoglobin in the Chamberlains' car, and that it was a significant factor in the original conviction. But it was later shown that these tests were highly unreliable, and that similar tests conducted on a 'sound deadener' sprayed on during the manufacture of the car had yielded virtually identical results.

Two years after they were exonerated, the Chamberlains were awarded AU$1.3 million in compensation for wrongful imprisonment, a sum that covered approximately one quarter of their legal expenses.

The findings of a third coroner's inquest were released on 13 December 1995. The coroner found that

Azaria Chantel Loren Chamberlain died at Ayers Rock on 17 August 1980. As to the cause of her death and the manner in which she died the evidence adduced does not enable me to say. I therefore return an open finding and record the cause and manner of death as unknown.

Media involvement and bias

The Chamberlain trial was the most publicised in Australian history. Given that most of the evidence presented in the case against Lindy Chamberlain was later rejected, the case is now used as an example of how media and bias can adversely affect a trial.

Public and media opinion during the trial was polarised, with "fanciful rumours and sickening jokes" and many cartoons. In particular there was a definitive sort of antagonism towards Lindy Chamberlain as she was reported as not behaving as a "stereotypical" grieving mother was expected to. In this sense there were striking parallels with the treatment of the protagonist in the famous novel L’Étranger, written by Camus in 1942. Much was made of the fact that the Chamberlains were Seventh-day Adventists (including false allegations that the church was in fact a strange cult that had killed babies as part of bizarre religious ceremonies,) that the family took a newborn baby to a remote desert location, and that Mrs Chamberlain showed little emotion during the proceedings.

Police had received an anonymous tip from a man, claiming to be Azaria's doctor in Mount Isa, that the name Azaria meant "sacrifice in the wilderness" (it actually means "blessed of God"). The caller did not give his name. Claims were made that Lindy Chamberlain was a witch. Another rumour that gained some currency in Australia at the time was that the real culprit was the Chamberlains' son, Aidan, and that his parents were covering up for his guilt.

The press appeared to seize upon any point that could be sensationalised. It was publicised that Lindy dressed her baby in a black dress.

Disappearance as a subject of books, film and opera

The story has been written into many different books and accounts.

John Bryson's book Evil Angels was published in 1985. In 1987, Australian film director Fred Schepisi adapted the book into a feature of the same name (retitled A Cry in the Dark outside of Australia). It starred Meryl Streep as Lindy and Sam Neill as Michael Chamberlain. There was some criticism at the time of the casting of an American as Lindy, however most critics were impressed with Streep's performance and ability to master an Australian accent, and Lindy commended the accuracy of the movie and Streep's portrayal. It gave Streep her eighth Academy Award nomination. The story had already been told in an earlier Australian TV docu-drama, Who Killed Baby Azaria? (1983), with Elaine Hudson as Lindy and John Hamblin as Michael, and has since been dramatised as a TV miniseries, Through My Eyes (2004), with Miranda Otto and Craig McLachlan as the Chamberlains. This miniseries was based on Lindy's book of the same name.

In 2002 Lindy, an opera by Moya Henderson, was produced by Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House.

The incident has been referred to several times in notable television programs. For example in a 1991 episode of the North American sitcom Seinfeld, The Stranded, the episode Mother Tucker of Family Guy, a Season 6 episode of "The Simpsons", entitled Bart vs. Australia, and in a 1994 episode of the North American sitcom Frasier, Flour Child. American Ska band Reel Big Fish made reference to the incident in their song Party Down. The lyric is "all the dingo's shout 'we'll eat your baby mate'".

In the U.S. TV show "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", a local band is called Dingoes Ate My Baby.

Subsequent events

In 1995 a third inquest into the death by Coroner John Lowndes delivered an open finding, leaving the case officially unsolved.

In July 2004, Frank Cole, a Melbourne pensioner, claimed that he had shot a dingo in 1980 and found a baby in its mouth. After interviewing Mr. Cole on the matter, police decided not to reopen the case. He claimed to have the ribbons from the jacket which Azaria had been wearing when she disappeared as proof of his involvement. However, Lindy claimed the jacket had no ribbons on it. Cole's credibility was further damaged when it was revealed he had made further unsubstantiated claims about another case.

The Chamberlains' claim that a dingo had taken Azaria was originally greeted with scepticism by many. Several factors led to this, including a lack of knowledge about dingoes and their behaviour, and the fact that these animals generally live in remote areas and are therefore rarely seen by most Australians. Combined with the historical human partiality for domesticated dogs, dingoes were not perceived as a dangerous species.

However, since the Chamberlain case, proven cases of attacks on humans by dingoes have brought about a dramatic change in public opinion. It is now widely accepted that, as the first inquest concluded, Azaria probably was killed by a dingo, and that her body could easily have been removed and eaten by a dingo, leaving little or no trace.

Crucial to the change in public opinion was a string of attacks by dingoes on Fraser Island off the Queensland coast, the last refuge in Australia for isolated pure-breed wild dingoes. In the wake of these attacks, most of which occurred in the late 1990s, it emerged that there had been at least 400 documented dingo attacks on Fraser Island alone. Most were against children, but at least two were on adults.

Notably, in April 1998, in a scenario strikingly similar to the story told by Lindy Chamberlain, a 13-month old girl was grabbed by a dingo and dragged from a picnic blanket at the Waddy Point camping area. In this case, the child was dropped when her father intervened.

In 2008, the Holden Torana that was tested for Azaria's blood in the original court case was used for Aidan Chamberlain's wedding. Aidan, Azaria's brother, was six when his sister disappeared. Aidans' bride arrived at the ceremony in the car the Chamberlains drove to Uluru, which was the centre of a forensic police investigation. Aidan's father Michael Chamberlain said he was proud the couple had chosen to use the car, now with the number plate "Forensic", that was the centrepiece of the case.

Current status

The cause of Azaria's disappearance has not been officially determined. The last and final official inquest listed the cause of her death as "undetermined." A body has never been found, only various items of bloodstained clothing. The Chamberlains, who were originally convicted, have been officially exonerated by the Court and eventually received some financial compensation. It is estimated that their legal fees exceeded five million Australian Dollars.

In August 2005, a 25-year old woman named Erin Horsburgh claimed that she was Azaria Chamberlain, but her claims were rejected by the authorities and the ABC's Media Watch program, who stated that none of the reports linking Horsburgh to the Chamberlain case had any substance.

The Chamberlains divorced in 1991 and Lindy Chamberlain has since remarried. She and her new husband lived for a time in the United States but have since returned to Australia.

The National Museum of Australia has in its collection over 250 items in relation to the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain which Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton has helped document in relation to her ordeal. Items include courtroom sketches, camping equipment, a piece of the dashboard from the Chamberlain family's car, outfits worn by Lindy and the number from her prison door as well as the black dress worn by Azaria which was the cause of so many rumours. The National Library of Australia has a small collection of items such as the birth detail record for Azaria Chamberlain and her hospital identification bracelet.

References

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