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Australia asks again: did a dingo do it?

The final chapter in most gripping legal drama in Australia will conclude when a coroner finds out if a dingo killed Lindy Chamberlain's nine-week-old daughter in Uluru 32 years ago.

Michael and Lindy Chamberlain leave a courthouse in Alice Springs in Australia in 1982 during the start of the most notorious legal drama in the country’s history.
Michael and Lindy Chamberlain leave a courthouse in Alice Springs in Australia in 1982 during the start of the most notorious legal drama in the country’s history.

SYDNEY // When Lindy Chamberlain ran from her family tent screaming "The dingo's got my baby!", she set in motion Australia's most gripping legal drama.

Thirty-two years on, the final act will begin to play out today, when a coroner will try to finally decide if a native dog, a dingo, snatched nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain from their tent during a family holiday at a campsite next to Uluru, deep in the Australian outback.

Lindy Chamberlain served three years in jail convicted of killing her own daughter. That was later quashed.

But the cause of Azaria's death has never been officially decided, despite three inquests, two legal appeals and a royal commission.

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, who divorced in 1991, now hope a fourth inquest beginning tomorrow will confirm a dingo took Azaria.

The Northern Territory coroner, Elizabeth Morris, only reopened the inquiry after the Chamberlains gave her a file of evidence about dingo attacks on children, including the fatal mauling of a nine-year-old boy, Clinton Gage, in 2001.

Azaria's death, more than any other, divided Australia. The Chamberlains' religion and the strangenous of the case stirred deep emotions.

When the baby went missing near Ayers Rock, now known as Uluru, in 1980, few believed the Chamberlains.

Michael and Lindy are Seventh Day Adventists. a largely unknown sect of Christianity in Australia at the time.

They were looked upon with suspicion. They were accused of sacrificing Azaria.

They showed little of the expected public emotion, famously showing a large poster of Azaria on the Darwin courthouse steps.

Mrs Chamberlain was convicted of killed her daughter. Mr Chamberlain was convicted of helping.

But in 1986 Azaria's baby jacket, bearing marks of a dingo attack, was found in a dingo lair near Uluru. Mrs Chamberlain, who has remarried and is now Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, was released from prison.

The Royal Commission led to the courts overturning their convictions in 1998 but a third inquest made an open finding - it could not rule what had happened.

The Australian public remained divided. Everyone has an opinion.

Stuart Tipple, the couple's lawyer, who flew into Darwin with them last night said some people would never stop believing Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton was guilty.

"You could show them a video of what happened, and they still wouldn't be convinced," he said.

The new file details 12 dingo attacks on children since 1995, three of them deadly.

As well as Clinton Gage, who was killed on Fraser Island, off the Queensland coast in the east of the country, two toddlers died after being bitten in separate incidents by pet dingo crossbreeds in the states of Victoria and New South Wales.

The Chamberlains have rebuilt their lives over the decades since they became the most photographed couple in Australia.

Lindy married Rick Creighton, an American publisher, and the couple live in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. She writes books, and gives lectures. Michael also remarried, and lives in northern New South Wales. A retired teacher, he is also an author.

Both declined to be interviewed before the inquest.

But Mr Tipple said they wanted to save other parents their agony.

"They believe it's very important to get that warning out there. They believe that if the appropriate finding had been made in 1995, some of these [subsequent] tragedies might not have happened," he said.

The Azaria case, closely followed overseas, inspired several books, as well as a Hollywood film - Evil Angels, starring Meryl Streep - who won a best actress Oscar nomination for her role - and a TV mini-series

John Bryson, who wrote the book on which the screenplay was based said Lindy and Michael suffered "a nightmare of colossal proportions".

Anthea Gunn, curator of the Chamberlain collection at the National Museum in Canberra, said Australians in rural and Aboriginal communities knew in the 1980s dingoes could and did kill people.

"But for most people, it was unheard of," she said. "We knew of spiders and crocodiles and snakes, but we didn't think these adorable furry creatures would attack humans."

The museum exhibits include a black dress which Azaria's mother made for her, and which became notorious.

"It was said that a woman who dressed her child in black must also be capable of killing her," said Ms Gunn, adding the miscarriage of justice the family suffered was "truly terrifying".

Mr Bryson was fascinated by the public reaction, and by the rumour-mongering, fanned by misinformation by Northern Territory police.

"I wrote Evil Angels not about the Chamberlains, but about us," he said.

He believes the new inquest is important because it will educate a younger generation.

"It's also important because, in a sense, it's a 'sorry' statement," he said.

"It's saying [to the Chamberlains]: 'We are sorry'."

The inquest will last one day. Coroner Elizabeth Morris will hand down her findings later.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae