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A dingo really did get her baby

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BRISBANE -- It took more than 30 years but on Wednesday, a coroner finally declared the claim "a dingo has got my baby" was true -- as the mother had said from Day 1.

That Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton was officially exonerated of the heinous death of her nine-week-old daughter Azaria, however, won't entirely stem the flow of absurd theories attached to the events of Aug. 17, 1980.

Australians like to think they're not given to bouts of mass hysteria, but in the Chamberlain case, we abandoned all perspective and regressed to a medieval village, complete with flaming torches, hotly in pursuit of a terrified witch.

The world, of course, likely knows the story as a result of the film A Cry in the Dark, which begins when Azaria is taken by a dingo while camping with her family at an appropriately spectral location -- the giant desert rock Uluru, known then as Ayers Rock.

Azaria's parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, were obviously distraught. But sympathy and the horrific image of a wild dog carrying off a baby quickly morphed into intense debate over guilt and innocence after Lindy refused to play the part of the hysterical mother.

Instead of wailing, she held her emotions in check on camera and spoke in a matter-of-fact way about her baby's disappearance from their tent in a crowded campground.

That refusal to meet expectations, together with the couple's Seventh Day Adventist religious beliefs, sparked a hostile reaction in the public inevitably reflected in the media.

Soon many Australians were openly questioning whether the young mother was a murderer. A host of sick jokes were aired across the nation, while an almost biblically inspired hysteria was fuelled by a ridiculous rumour suggesting the name Azaria meant "sacrifice in the wilderness."

Instead of being allowed to grieve, the Chamberlains were brought to criminal trial. Lindy was accused of slitting her child's throat in the front seat of the family car, disposing of the body, then raising the now famous cry: "My God! My God! A dingo has got my baby!"

Among the crucial evidence amateur sleuths pondered was Lindy's insistence her child was wearing a jacket. No such jacket was found among the child's clothes later retrieved.

Six years later, as Lindy languished in jail in the northern capital of Darwin on a life term for murder, a twist came in the narrative that even Hitchcock would have tipped his hat at.

A young Englishman plunged to his death at Uluru and a search party stumbled upon the vital jacket.

Lindy was released and the simpletons among us began a barrage of criticism of the prosecutors, the media, the police and, in some cases, the entire Northern Territory where the whole sorry drama was played out.

Wiser souls, even those among her most virulent accusers, took a sharp breath and lapsed into a much-needed bout of introspection, wondering what on Earth possessed us all to behave like a grand jury at a Salem witch trial.

Comedian Wendy Harmer, who ridiculed Lindy in a standup routine in the 1980s, was one of the few noble enough to make a public apology this week.

"Such was the firestorm of hatred, all rationality was lost," Harmer wrote in an apology to Lindy and Michael.

"I acknowledge that the horror for your family has been unending. You have always conducted yourselves with the utmost dignity and composure. The very qualities that saw you damned, accused and convicted."

The sort of people who cling to absurd conspiracy theories may still insist on her guilt. But at the conclusion of a fourth inquiry, the legal record is now clear. Lindy was finally fully exonerated Wednesday morning when a Darwin coroner found that a dingo killed Azaria Chamberlain.

With her now ex-husband Michael and son Aiden, Lindy heard the cause of her baby's death formally changed from "unknown."

Coroner Elizabeth Morris was understandingly emotional as she read out her findings.

"The cause of her death was as the result of being attacked and taken by a dingo," Morris said. "I am so sorry for your loss. Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child."

 

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2012 A12

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