This week Azaria Chamberlain would have turned 40-years-old. It also marks almost four decades since the infant was taken from an Uluru campsite by a dingo.
The ensuing saga of searches, court cases and accusations against the Chamberlain family divided Australia, as recounted in John Bryson’s celebrated account, Evil Angels: The Case of Lindy Chamberlain, which was subsequently made into a movie of the same name.
To mark the tragic anniversary, Bryson explains how things could have turned out very differently.
In mid-1980, Lindy Chamberlain was in Mt Isa and preparing to give birth to her third child. She was born on June 11, 1980, a girl her parents called Azaria, ‘helper of God’.
The family were Seventh-day Adventists. The father, Michael, was a pastor. They liked camping and decided to visit Uluru, then known as Ayers Rock, in the Central Desert when the babe was a few weeks old and could travel in a bassinet.
At around this time, the rangers in charge of the park and the camp at the Rock were alarmed by dingo packs which they described as forming a ‘Bohemian class’ of opportunists, now unafraid of humankind, troublesome and dangerous. The chief ranger, Derek Roff, wrote to his superiors warning that “small children and infants must be considered possible prey” and advising that the worst offenders should be culled.
He received no acknowledgement. Indeed, all copies of Roff’s letter were later removed from the departmental file, in effect a coverup to foil any efforts to make it public.
If, as the rangers expected, their department had acted on the warning and brought the packs under control, the many families visiting the Rock during the rest of the year could have enjoyed their visits without fear, able to recount memories of the Rock’s brilliance at dawn and dusk, of campfire cooking, new friendships and the galaxies of stars above the nighttime desert’s impenetrable darkness.
And a swaddled baby girl may have grown into adulthood, married at an age approved by her church, brought up her children, and most of us would never have heard of her.
On August 16, the rangers were still awaiting instructions about their dingo problem.
The Chamberlain family, with two boys and the babe, drove into the camping compound at the base of the Rock and pitched a small tent alongside their Holden Torana. That first evening and through the next day they spent sightseeing. The following evening they ate with other families at fireside. The babe lay in her bassinet behind the tent flap.
Then a wail alerted the adults. The mother saw a dingo bounding from the tent. The bassinet was bloodied, empty. The cry went up. Roff and other rangers were called to the site. Roff’s first thought was, ‘So it’s finally happened.’
Volunteers came in their hundreds from camps, vans, motels. Rangers directed the searchers’ ascent of the dune. The night was a sea of torches. Blacktracker Minyintiri used flaming brush for its broader light and found tracks with an impression of a rested bundle, which he noted did ‘not move anymore’.
After many hours Roff called in the searchers. He believed no scrap of the tiny body would be found. A crowd of volunteers stood around the tent on which spurted blood had begun to dry. Paw marks in the dust were trampled underfoot. Pastor Michael attempted a speech of thanks and was able to avoid tears until a volunteer hugged him.
That very moment is the last at which everyone involved knows precisely what had happened.
A few days later the depleted family drove home to Mt Isa, soon to find that rumours of infanticide had begun to circulate, the first of them supposing Azaria had been sacrificed on Ayers Rock to atone for the sins of the world. Many confused the Seventh-day Adventists with Jehovah’s Witnesses, others saw Azaria’s death resulting from her taint as a ‘devil’s child’, as in horror movies of the times.
So appalled was the first coroner, Denis Barritt, than he invited a news camera into his court so his findings could not be misrepresented. He apologised to the Chamberlains for the nation’s behaviour and criticised the responsible departments for their laxity.
Thus was born the impetus for the newly formed Operation Ochre, an investigation team whose membership and works would be kept secret. In this lay its success: secrecy and ruthlessness. In secret it arranged the overturn of Coroner Barritt’s finding, removed him and substituted Coroner Jerry Galvin. In secret it had Azaria’s baby clothes examined by pathologists in London and Sydney. These findings were leaked to friendly journalists, but kept from the Chamberlains. So nationally widespread was belief in the Chamberlains’ guilt that the resulting trial was a charade of justice.
After Lindy was jailed and appellate courts refused to intervene, the campsite witnesses formed travelling roadshows using public halls to protest the Chamberlains’ innocence, a rebellious reaction against the judicial system not seen before or since.
Lindy spent two years in prison, supported by her jailers, who believed in her truthfulness. She was released after tourists found a baby’s over-jacket, a garment disputed by the prosecution.
A subsequent Royal Commission determined there was no feasible evidence of guilt. Some laboratory exhibits had been falsified. Infant’s blood said to have been detected in the family car was nothing more sinister that the old residue of a spilled milkshake. In the footwell where Lindy was alleged to have decapitated Azaria with a pair of nail scissors, the stain first identified as blood was later identified as the industrial chemical, Dufix 101, sprayed on during manufacture at the Holden plant.
The Chamberlains were finally exonerated by the Northern Territory Supreme Court.
Secrecy disables the scientific method and provides cover for injustice. Like the fourth coroner, Elizabeth Morris, who could not consider these happenings without tears, we should all abhor the misery caused by the greatest forensic fraud in our nation’s history.
John Bryson AM is an author and former lawyer known for ‘Evil Angels, The Case of Lindy Chamberlain’ among other non-fiction and fiction books.