SHAKING with shock, Lindy Chamberlain stood beside a small tent and screamed for help in the desert darkness, yelling: "The dingo’s got my baby!"
Seconds earlier the family, on a camping trip at Uluru, Australia, had been enjoying a barbecue with friends when they had heard nine-week-old Azaria give a short, sharp cry.
When mum-of-three Lindy went to check on her newborn that fateful night in August 1980, she saw a dingo – a wild Australian dog – emerge from the tent and run into the darkness.
The body of baby Azaria was never recovered and the unthinkable tragedy was just the start of Lindy’s nightmare.
In the years to come she was labelled a "child-killer" by the Australian public, accused of cutting her daughter’s throat in a satanic ritual, and served four years in jail after being wrongly convicted of her daughter’s murder.
Forty years on a new documentary Accused: Trial in the Outback, which airs on Channel 5 tonight, examines the witch hunt that followed Azaria’s death and the devastating impact of the miscarriage of justice on Lindy, husband Michael and their three surviving children.
"Grief is the price we pay for love," she tells the documentary. "If you have a lot of love, you have a lot of grief.
"But your life is richer for those we have loved and lost.
A cry in the dark and baby was gone
As 32-year-old Lindy climbed out of the car in the scorching desert heat of the Northern Territory, she spotted a dingo staring at her from the top of Uluru – AKA Ayers Rock.
Clutching her baby daughter close to her chest, the mum-of-three watched as her four-year-old son Reagan, excited by the sight of the wild dog, began shouting and running as he tried to get a better view.
“The animal seemed to fix its eye on me and the baby,” she later told an inquest jury.
“It made me feel creepy. An animal usually watches movement but this one didn’t seem to, it seemed to be intently watching me and the baby.”
Lindy and Michael, a Seven Day Adventist pastor, were excited to be on a family camping trip with Reagan, his older brother Aidan, then seven, and their new arrival Azaria, and were soon settled into the campsite with a group of friends around them.
But the following night, on August 17, 1980, they were sitting in the barbecue area when Michael – and many of the other campers – heard a cry come from the tent where baby Azaria and Reagan were sleeping.
Michael asked Lindy to check on the baby but, as she approached the tent, she saw a dingo and began running.
“I could only see the top of its shoulders and its head and I thought ‘there’s no food in there but he might have damaged or mauled the baby,’" she says.
"I ran to the tent and looked in her carry cot and she wasn’t there, so I felt all around the tent to make sure he hadn’t dropped her because I couldn’t see how he could have taken her and got out in such a hurry.
“Then I yelled out ‘Has anyone got a torch? The dingo’s got my baby.’”
The frantic party called the local police and began searching the area for Azaria – unaware of a huge blood stain inside the tent.
“There was a pool of blood on Reagan’s mattress and (friend) Sally Lowe saw it when she went over because one of the kids started to cry,” Lindy tells the documentary.
“She said (to herself), ‘there’s no doubt this child is dead. That’s a lot of blood.’”
There’s no doubt this child is dead. That’s a lot of blood.
Chillingly witness Judy West, who stayed at the camp with the children, recalls shocked seven-year-old Aidan telling her, “The dingo’s got our baby in its tummy.”
Police and local aboriginal trackers searched through the night and found dingo tracks to and from the camp but no trace of the baby.
The following day, on police advice, the couple packed up and made the agonising 13-hour drive back to their home in Mount Isa, Queensland without their baby girl.
“In the first couple of days after Azaria died, if someone had walked up to me and said they were going to shoot me with a shotgun I would have said ‘go ahead’,” said Lindy. “I wouldn’t have cared less.”
Baby's clothes heavily stained with blood
A few days after the disappearance, walkers in the area made the horrifying discovery of Azaria’s babygrow, stained with blood from the neck down. A matinee jacket Lindy claimed she was wearing at the time was still missing.
After police released pictures of the suit, rumours began to swirl about the couple’s involvement in the baby girl’s death.
Cars began hooting outside their house and neighbours stopped talking when they saw Lindy coming, while whispered conversations in the local supermarket constantly questioned her innocence.
Wild theories that the baby had been killed in a Satanic slaying began to circulate, fuelled by people’s unfounded suspicion of the Seven Day Adventist religion, and some even suggested the name Azaria meant ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. It actually means ‘blessed by God.’
Other theories claimed the tot had been sold into white slavery in south east Asia or that Aidan had killed the baby and his parents were covering for him.
“The one that distressed me the most was that Azaria was ill-treated,” says Lindy. “That we were child-bashers. And the one coupled with it was that she was an abnormal baby and we didn’t want her.”
Hate mail began to arrive with messages such as “Lindy, you should be hung up to the nearest tree," and “You murdered the baby because it was abnormal.”
An unemotional interview Lindy gave, where she appeared to calmly explain how a dingo could devour a tiny child without destroying the babygrow fuelled speculation and many Australians decided Lindy was guilty of the heinous crime.
In fact, it was later revealed that the TV company who filmed the footage had to do seven takes because the grieving mum was so distraught.
Overwhelmed by the press attention and accusations, Michael revealed he was not able to properly grieve for his loss and, heartbreakingly, he told a friend: “The saddest thing for me is that I can’t remember what Azaria looked like.”
Ranger warned 'babies will be dingo prey'
In December 1980, an inquest heard that rangers in the Uluru area had reported dingo attacks just two weeks before the baby disappeared.
Derek Roff, Chief Ranger, wrote to local authorities asking for ammunition to cull dingos, telling them there was a drought, the dingos were starving and becoming dangerous and adding: “Babies will be their next prey.”
Fellow camper Judith West testified to seeing a dingo circling her young daughter before she scared it off.
The authorities attempted to disprove the dingo theory by hiring a dentist who testified that canine teeth could’t bite through a babygrow, but the coroner concluded that the baby had been taken by a dingo.
He also heavily criticised the police over forensic slip-ups, including moving the baby clothes before their position had been photographed – and delaying scientific examination of blood splatters in the tent.
Accused of slitting daughter's throat and hiding body
Smarting from criticism of their investigation, and worried that fear of dingo attacks would damage tourism, the Northern Territorial authorities set about proving Lindy killed Azaria.
They hired a British forensic scientist Professor James Cameron to examine the baby clothes, and he concluded Azaria had been held as her throat was slit and claimed there was a bloody handprint on the back of the babygrow.
Lindy was arrested on suspicion of murder, in September 1982, with husband Michael charged with accessory after the fact.
Prosecutors, trying to suggest the baby had been dead before the family arrived at the barbecue that night, re-interviewed eye witnesses who had heard the baby’s “cry in the dark” and tried to convince them they had misheard or had been lying. Not one changed their story.
Forensic scientist Joy Kuhl testified that she had found bloodstains containing foetal blood (present in newborns) in the couple’s car. They would later be found to be manufacturing fluid.
The prosecution alleged that in a ten minute window when Lindy was absent from the campfire, putting Azaria to bed, she returned to her tent, changed into tracksuit bottoms, took Azaria to her car, cut her throat with scissors, hid the body in a camera case in the car, cleaned up the blood, removed the tracksuit pants, returned to the tent, planted blood splashes there then brought Aidan back to the campfire.
She was then said to have opened the car to give the dingo a scent of the baby’s blood.
No blood was seen on any of her clothes.
Incredibly, the jury found her guilty of murder and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Michael was convicted of accessory to murder and given a suspended sentence “for the sake of his motherless boys.”
At the time of conviction, Lindy was seven months pregnant with second daughter Kahlia.
Hearing the shock verdict, Lindy says: “I felt calm but numb.
“Michael had a completely different reaction. Going down the stairs, I had to hold him and ask the men behind to hold him up because his legs went from under him and he would have fallen headfirst down the stairs.”
New baby taken into foster home as mum jailed
Briefly let out of prison on bail during her failed appeal, she gave birth to baby Kahlia in November 1982 but her newborn was put into foster care close to the couple’s home, so Michael could see her.
He and boys were allowed to visit just three times a year and, even when Reagan sliced his eye in half in a horrific accident she was not allowed out.
The notoriety of the case had a profound impact on the boys.
Breaking down in the documentary, Aidan says: “We grew up with it. It was a daily conversation and we kept looking forward. I look back now and it’s like watching a good movie you get caught up in and it’s intense and then you think about it a bit harder.”
Reagan reveals school life was hard, adding: “There were fights I got into because people would be saying ‘your mum’s a child-killer’ or spitting at us.
“Aidan and I used to take out a lot of our frustrations on each other, through wrestling and fighting.”
Reagan also suffered with feelings of guilt, knowing the dingo climbed over his sleeping body in the tent before snatching his sister, and Aidan also blamed himself.
“I was unaware he was following me back to the tent. I’m so glad I was in front of him so he didn’t see anything but for years we didn’t know that he blamed himself for not zipping up the tent,” says Lindy.
“But the zip was broken and it wouldn’t have made any difference. They were smart enough to get in.”
Lindy Chamberlain story timeline
August 17, 1980 – Lindy Chamberlain discovered her daughter Azaria missing from their family tent during a camping trip at Uluru in the Northern Territory.
December 1980 – An initial inquest supported Lindy and Michael Chamberlain's claims their daughter was taken by a dingo.
December 1981 – A second inquest was ordered after the Supreme Court quashed the initial inquest's findings.
September 1982 – Lindy was charged with Azaria's murder and Michael was charged with being an accessory after the fact.
October 29, 1982 – The couple were found guilty of their respective charges. Lindy was sentenced to life in prison and Michael received a suspended sentence.
Early 1986 – The jacket Azaria was wearing when she was killed was found by authorities in a dingo lair after a British tourist fell to his death in the same area.
1986 – The Northern Territory government ordered Lindy to be released from prison.
1988 – Lindy and Michael were acquitted of Azaria's death by the Supreme Court and their convictions were overturned. The couple received a $1.3 million pay-out for their wrongful imprisonment.
1991 – Lindy and Michael divorced.
1995 – A third inquest into the infant's death was held and returned an open verdict.
2012 – A fourth inquest was held and the coroner ruled that a dingo did in fact take Azaria from the family's campsite. Michael said that he and his ex-wife had no contact.
Another tragedy led to a breakthrough in the case, when British tourist David Brett was found dead at the base of Uluru, in February 1986.
The body, ravaged by dingoes, was close to the gully where Azaria’s jumpsuit and nappy had been found and just 70 metres away was Azaria’s missing matinee jacket – which police had maintained had never existed.
Lindy was released from prison, pending an appeal, and at the subsequent trial, in 1988, the supreme court found that the “baby blood” found in the car was likely to have been a sound deadening compound from a manufacturing spray.
Acquitted of all charges, Lindy was reunited with her family but the trauma had taken a toll on her marriage and the couple split in 1990. Michael died from leukaemia in 2017.
Now remarried, Lindy was awarded £720,000 in damages for her wrongful conviction.
But she says she could not put her ordeal behind her until 2012 when a new inquest ruled that she was an “exemplary mother” and the real cause of death for tragic Azaria was finally recorded on a death certificate.
“They have finally got it right, and I can lay down the burden of fighting,” she says. “It’s like a weight off my shoulders. I’m not leaving a problem for my kids to deal with. I’m not leaving a legacy for my grandchildren to say ‘that’s not true’.
“Now, they’d just go, Well, you’re stupid. Just look at history.”
Accused: Trial in the Outback airs on Channel 5 at 9pm tonight
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