By KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press
SYDNEY (AP) — The growl came first, low and throaty, piercing the darkness that had fallen across the remote Australian desert. A baby's cry followed, then abruptly went silent. Inside the tent, the infant girl had vanished. Outside, her mother was screaming: "The dingo's got my baby!"
With those panicked words, the mystery of Azaria Chamberlain's disappearance in the Australian Outback in 1980 became the most notorious, divisive and baffling legal drama in the country's history. Had a wild dog really taken the baby? Or had Azaria's mother, Lindy, slit her daughter's throat and buried her in the desert?
Thirty-two years later, Australian officials hope to finally, definitively, determine how Azaria died when the Northern Territory coroner opens a fourth inquest on Friday. Lindy Chamberlain, who was convicted of murdering her daughter and later cleared, is still waiting for authorities to close the case that made her the most hated person in Australia.
To the rest of the world, the case is largely known for its place in pop culture: countless books, an opera, the Meryl Streep movie "A Cry in the Dark," and the sitcom Seinfeld's spoof of Lindy's cry, "Maybe the dingo ate your baby!"
But to Australians, the case is about much more than the guilt or innocence of one woman. It is about the guilt or innocence of a nation — a nation that prides itself on the concept of a "fair go," an equal chance, for all. Did Lindy Chamberlain get a fair go? Or had Australians misjudged this woman? With doubts growing about just how fair and tolerant they truly were, many wondered if they had misjudged themselves.
And so Australia will once again try to get to the bottom of one of the most painful chapters in its history.
"It's a bit like a really bad war," says Tony Raymond, chief forensic scientist in an investigation that debunked much of the evidence used to convict Lindy. "You've got to learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again."
The nightmare began on Aug. 17, 1980, during a family vacation to Ayers Rock, the sacred Outback monolith now known by its Aboriginal name Uluru.
Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, their two sons and their 9-week-old daughter, Azaria, were settling in for the night at a campsite near the rock. Azaria was sleeping in a tent and Lindy and Michael making dinner nearby when a baby's cry rang out. Lindy went to check on her daughter and says she saw a dingo slink out of the tent and disappear into the darkness. Azaria's bassinet was empty, the blankets still warm.
There was an intense search, but Azaria was never found.
The Chamberlains insisted the dingo snatched their daughter. Outside the tent were dingo tracks; inside were spots of blood. Fellow campers told officials they had heard a low growl, then a baby's cry. Azaria's torn, bloodied jumpsuit was found in the surrounding desert. There was no motive for a crime, no eyewitness, no body.
But police and the public doubted a dingo was big or strong enough to drag away a 10-pound (4.5-kilogram) baby. Nobody could find documentation of a dingo killing a child before. While Australia is notorious for its deadly creatures — snakes, spiders, crocodiles — the humble dingo was considered a shy animal that posed little threat to people.
And without the DNA testing available now, the forensic evidence looked damning. The dashboard in the Chamberlains' car was drenched in baby's blood, and a bloody hand print was found on Azaria's jumpsuit. Years later, more sophisticated tests determined the "blood" was a combination of spilled milk and a chemical sprayed during manufacture. The "hand print" was not a hand print at all — and was made mostly of red desert dust.
The prosecution said there was no dingo saliva on Azaria's jumpsuit, which Lindy put down to the jacket she had been wearing over it. But the jacket was missing, and police said she was lying.
The daily details of the trial were picked over in pubs and debated around dinner tables, breeding a generation of armchair cops who analyzed every piece of evidence described in the morning papers and on the nightly news.
Australians didn't like the Chamberlains. Their religious affiliation — Seventh-day Adventist — was too weird, and Lindy was too calm.